Woman's mission for arts education draws praise

Judy Sleeth led her kindergartner to class in the early ’80s and discovered something disturbing — funding for the arts had been decimated.

“I walked in the door and asked the teacher, ‘What can I do to help?’ the Atherton resident recalls. The teacher didn’t hesitate in her answer — art lessons.

A quarter-century later, arts programs for public schools are still struggling. But Sleeth, who was honored this month by San Mateo County supervisors, has come a long way. Arts in Action, the nonprofit organization she formed at the behest of other parents, trains 2,000 teachers and parents a year and has brought the arts to tens of thousands of Peninsula kids.

“An Unfinished Canvas,” a 2007 study funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and conducted by SRI International, determined that 89 percent of California public schools fall short of state goals by failing to offer a standards-based course of study in music, visual arts, theater and dance. About 61 percent of the schools lack even one full-time arts teacher.

That leaves classroom teachers and parents to provide arts education. That’s where Sleeth steps in.

“Teachers today have not only not been trained to teach art, but most of them didn’t have it in school either,” she said. “Most teachers are very frightened about teaching art, because they don’t feel they’re adequate artists. Training gives them confidence.”

With a budget of only $600,000, Arts in Action relies on private donations and an army of volunteers to keep its costs low enough for schools to afford. Schools pay about $150 per classroom for teacher training and 12 lessons. Lessons are based on masterpieces and focus on shapes, colors, painting techniques, art history and appreciation for other cultures.

“Art awakens students in a different way,” Sleeth said. “They connect with it and internalize it and the benefit carries over to other areas.”

Sleeth’s organization, which changed from a tightly knit group of parent volunteers to a nonprofit business in 1999, is growing 20 percent each year. About five years ago, Arts in Action expanded into San Francisco, where it serves a handful of elementary schools.

Bay Area schools appear to benefit more than schools in the rest of the state from partnerships with arts organizations, according to the Unfinished Canvas study. Principals’ reports of county support also varied widely. One-fourth of principals in Alameda and 22 percent of principals in San Mateo reported their county offices of education provide professional development around arts education, compared with 4 percent to 10 percent of principals in other Bay Area counties.

tbarak@examiner.com

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