When their teacher collapsed in the classroom earlier this year, the second grade students of Peter Burnett Elementary in Sacramento were left to deal with the trauma of his death.
Andrea Safar stepped in as their teacher, and what she noticed was a diverse group of 7-year-olds supporting one another.
“These kids take care of each other like I've never seen before,” Safar said. She says she attributes this behavior to an innovative arts education program offered by Northern California School of the Arts. It’s a program which utilizes theater, social and emotional learning, and, most recently, violence prevention.
“What the program does is it gives a vocabulary to our emotions,” Safar said. “We have to be taught that.”
Racial tensions rose in the last year as Sacramento County schools witnessed hate crimes against Black students and administrators and burgeoning incidences of youth seeking mental health services in the aftermath of prolonged online learning. And nationally, 87% of public school teachers were encountering new behavioral issues in the classroom. In response, the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, has allotted funding to NorCal School of the Arts through their Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grant Program.
Prior to receiving the grant, NorCal Arts’ unprecedented approach of combining theater with social-emotional learning, history, and English language standards had already been embraced by 280 classrooms in Sacramento’s Title I schools.
NorCal Teaching Artist Dorothea Bonneau teaches a social-emotional learning and theater arts class at Will C. Wood Middle School.Credit SECCTV
“We just think arts is important for all students, not just those that can afford it,” said Michele Hillen-Noufer, Executive Director of NorCal Arts. Her efforts are dedicated to the vulnerable communities in Sacramento who haven’t had equitable access to the arts.
Create CA, a coalition in California fighting for equitable and accessible arts education for all public school students, finds that 90% of schools in California fail to meet state-mandated arts education requirements, as of 2022. In Sacramento, Dennis Mangers, a long-time advisor to Mayor Darrell Steinberg, has been monitoring arts education in the city and has found that well-resourced communities have PTA groups that raise funds for the arts, while low-income neighborhoods might have no arts education at all.
For students in under-resourced schools, not having access to arts education can be detrimental to their psychological well-being, creativity, and self-efficacy. Significantly, NorCal Arts found that 95% of teachers that participated in their arts education program reported elevated student engagement in classrooms.
Teaching Artist Elaine DouglasCredit Northern California School of the Arts
Embedded in Sacramento City Unified schools, NorCal Arts’ teaching artists partner with K-12 English teachers to deliver a 10 week curriculum where theater arts is a communication tool given to students to analyze their environment, recognize their internal dialogue, and assist in developing English language skills.
In 2021, Safar had Norcal Art’s teaching artist Elaine Douglas in her fourth-grade classroom and the duo collaborated to integrate Black history into their arts education.
“We were learning about the Harlem Renaissance and how artists like Duke Ellington were performing for all white audiences. People of color weren't allowed to come and watch,” Safar said. “Seeing how deep that goes, the history of this country and seeing ourselves in these artists, it's really impactful. And then, getting to perform those pieces, [the students] loved it.”
Douglas, a local Black performing artist, says she derives her passion for arts education from her previous work as a Sacramento-based teacher and principal. She reflected on the importance of seeing artists of color in the classroom and pulled a memory of teaching her 16-year-old daughter.
“[My daughter] said to me, ‘Well, you know, Mom, you're the first Black teacher I ever had.’ That resonated with me,” said Douglas. “ So I had to think about how many times have students had this conversation in their head.”
And though Douglas says her identities don’t play a role in her teaching, she adds that it is empowering for students of color to see teaching artists of color.
“It may seem like it's artistic, but it goes back to being a mirror of our society. If this is the way we are placed in society, there are like a lot of scenarios that we could find ourselves in,” said Douglas. “And it helps children of color to express things that have already happened to them that they don't quite have words for yet.”
Students at Will C. Wood Middle School take a NorCal Arts class.Credit SECCTV
As part of the DHS grant, NorCal Arts will extend their curriculum another 10 weeks to include conflict resolution.
“It is an innovation grant,” said NorCal Arts Executive Director Hillen-Noufer. “The idea hasn't been done before.”
Dr. Noel Lipana, Sacramento region prevention coordinator in DHS’ Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships, surveys and develops relationships with locally-led groups to amplify their unique violence prevention efforts.
“NorCal Arts’ offerings happen to be in using performing arts to teach social-emotional learning, conflict resolution, de-escalation to underserved schools,” said Lipana. “Those types of skills and their access to Title I schools is really important to create a foundation for an increase in protective factors and a decrease in risk factors.”
The $600,000 federal grant is for two years of programming in 140 Sacramento City Unified classrooms. Lipana says the DHS grant combats domestic terrorism and violence with long-term tactics to improve social determinants of health such as healthy emotional expression and improved academic performance.
“It's really an effort of collective action to prevent racially motivated violence or ethnically motivated violence,” Lipana explained.
Teaching artist Douglas explains her methods in the classroom: “Through Pantomime, through Tableau, we develop strategies to give [students] tools to work with, to express what has happened to them, what is happening to them, and how to express how to react and respond should these kinds of situations present themselves?”
Second-grade teacher Safar eagerly awaits the arrival of Douglas to her classroom in the new year. Though she had hoped for intervention immediately for her students after their teacher’s passing, the NorCal Arts program was already saturated with requests. Still, Safar says she is patient because she knows the potential of the program.
“To bring a skill and arts and fun into a room where these kids experienced trauma, I think will be so impactful for them. And I'm really excited to get started.” Safar said. “Miss Elaine Douglas is just a wonderful teaching artist. She's so vivacious and kind and warm. It's scary to go up on stage in front of all these people, but she makes it so comfortable for them.”
Over time, Safar, Douglas, and Hillen-Noufer hope to get this type of arts education into every school.
“We are looking at how can we bring this program to other communities all across California,” said Hillen-Noufer. “We want to provide access for all students.”
Srishti Prabha is a Report For America corps member and Education Reporter in collaboration with The Sacramento Observer and CapRadio. Their focus is on K-12 education in Black communities.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Michele Hillen-Noufer. It has been corrected.
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