It's The Last Day Of School For The Head Of Arts Education At LAUSD

Rory Pullens speaks with music teacher Garnet Basile at George Washington Carver Middle School. (Photo by Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC)

When Rory Pullens was named the head of LAUSD's arts education branch four years ago, the standing ovation from the district's teachers lasted so long, we couldn't even play the whole thing on the radio. (Seriously. Don't believe me?)

Pullens, who had previously worked as the principal of an arts-focused high school in Washington, D.C., said he took the LAUSD job - notably, after turning down offers to run Cortines High School twice - because of "the commitment the leadership in the district, the then-superintendent, and the school board had to arts education."

I visited Pullens as he was packing up his office in his final days before retirement. He told me he couldn't pick an accomplishment that he was most proud of. But we spent most of our time talking about the Arts Education Branch's work in addressing inequitable access to arts education.

"If you want to be in a school orchestra, you shouldn't have to travel across town just to be able to experience that school orchestra. Your school should have that. If you're a student who loves to draw and paint, you shouldn't have to be told that 'Well, we don't have any canvas. We don't have the paint or the paint brushes. You'll have to wait until next year' ...," Pullens said. "You should be able to engage in that now in your school."

During his time with the district, the branch launched the Arts Equity Index, which evaluated how well LAUSD schools were doing in making sure students living in poverty, English language learners and foster kids have access to the arts. Pullens said they used the index to determine which schools needed the most resources to bring students high-quality arts instruction.

"When we started ... 75 percent of our schools were actually considered underserved or grossly underserved," Pullens said. "We just finished Arts Equity Index 2.0 that is about to be publicly released later this summer, [and] I am happy to report there are no schools that are now considered grossly underserved."

He also led the Arts Education Branch through its first benefit concert in April. (Listen to students talk about what that experience meant to them).

The concert was intended to be both an attention-raiser and a fundraiser for the district, where the arts budget has doubled in recent years to over $31 million, but is still less than half of what it was before 2008 and the recession. Pullens said the show brought in about $100,000 this year. But, he added, that the benefits went beyond just the financial.

"I think that it's going to grow and grow and grow until eventually it's going to start generating those, you know, seven figure kinds of revenue streams that we were desiring," Pullens said.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

What made this job different?

The sheer scale and size, right? ... Volume was something that was significantly different. Also, Los Angeles is a very diverse school district. This is a school district where there are 93 different languages spoken. The education and the communities that are in the West Side are different from South LA, or East LA, or in the valley. And so it wasn't a one-size-fits-all that would work here in LA Unified, but it really forced you to be creative, to really cater to the needs of that particular community, those particular schools and students, and that challenge was something I very much very much welcomed.

How did you creatively address challenges?

We initiated the Arts Equity Index, and that was to ensure there would be access and equity for all schools within the district, no matter where they were located. No matter their socioeconomic standing. That was a game changer in this district. So, before, schools would be allocated funding simply based upon their enrollment. But with the arts equity index, we actually took into context all kinds of other important things: What was the English language learner percentage? What was the Title I factor? Homeless youth? Foster youth? How much arts professional development was taking place in the school? How many arts teachers did you have? For how long were they they actually teaching? All of these factors contributed to where they stood on the Arts Equity Index. And so the most underserved schools actually got a greater amount of financial support for the arts so that they could catch up with some of the other schools.

The other thing that was so valuable, so vital: LA Unified really extended itself and worked with its larger community... It was so important for us to work with our community arts partners, to work with our entertainment industry ... in providing arts experiences and activities, you know, workshops and seminars for students ... There are jobs and career pathways that students could actually explore. That is so very important to have other entities working with LAUSD in collaboration, because there just aren't enough art teachers in the classroom to get to every single student.

... And the last thing that I would add is the work that we've done in providing arts integration. That is so important, because when teachers have in their arsenal of strategies, how they can integrate the arts, into science, into math, into history, into physical education, then it makes their content area more interesting to students.

I can't help but also think of the arts concert —

Oh, there you go - to see that diverse collection of students on stage. Those students performing with professionals ... To see award-winning celebrities who were LA Unified alum, come back to share their experiences and how their exposure when they were in high school helped shaped their lives. It was just a night you couldn't forget ... I think we've initiated a movement through this district of promoting the arts in a different kind of way that had been done before. And that movement is really putting the arts on people's radars.

Is there anything that you wanted to accomplish that you weren't able to? Were there challenges or things that you think future arts ed branch folks can address?

When you talk about servicing over a half million students that are in this district, you have to recognize that, you know, you can always benefit from expanding your personnel who provide that support, right? You can always look at increasing budgets even further. I always bring up while the budget has doubled in four years, it is still only half the size of what it was back in 2008, when we had the economic downturn. And so I think it's very important that we continue to fund arts education, so that the vision of what certainly has been taking place these last four years can continue into the next generation.

Why is arts ed an equity issue? Why have an Arts Equity Index?

As educators, we are here to ensure that every single child, irrespective of where you live, have the same opportunities for success that any other child has... Are we there completely yet? No, but we know that we're on the right track. Because our decisions here in the arts education branch, were not based upon a principal calling us and telling us they wanted this... We went to the arts equity index. We looked at the most underserved. We looked at our Title I schools. We looked at those factors that the arts equity index showed us ... Because at the end of the day, if you happen to live in a community that is that is stable, that is affluent, your school administration, and teachers are often the position to say, "Count us in. We're going we have the best. We can afford to pay for this." And those students experience the best of what the city has to offer.

We want the best to be experienced by every child and the kind of work that we did this year through the Arts Equity Index began to allow for that.

What does the data tell you about what can be done to make access to arts more equitable?

It's told us that if we're going to see the bar raised in our schools, when it comes to the arts, we are going to have to provide artistic experiences beyond just what the arts teacher can provide in the schools. Because the reality is, the budget is only going to allow for the district to hire so many the arts teachers to be in the schools. Yes, that continues to - it needs to continue to grow. However, the Arts Equity Index has shown us that where schools receive significant bumps up in their arts experiences is through our works with partnerships. The Arts Community Network [a group of arts programs in the community and industry] - the work that they are doing in only the most underserved schools is phenomenal.

... Another significant area is we really engage the arts as it relates to social-emotional learning, and working with students who have been in and out of the juvenile justice system, those students [who] are really struggling in so many other aspects of life, that they really need the arts to really, you know, provide them support. And that has made a huge difference in those schools, when it has come to student attendance.... So we were in continuation schools, we were in our alternative schools, and those schools service students that are kind of on the fringe. They may be the ones that, you know, are in jeopardy of not graduating.


News happens every day. Here at LAist, our goal is to cover the stories that matter to you and the community you live in. Now that we're part of KPCC, those stories (including this one you're on right now!) are made possible by generous people like you. Independent, local journalism isn't cheap, but with your support we can keep delivering it. Donate now.