Art education programs slowly rebuild after schools’ budget crisis

Recovering from the budget crisis took both money and creative planning.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

When the School District of Philadelphia adopted what was known as its “doomsday” budget for the 2013-14 school year, there was barely enough money to maintain general education requirements mandated by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Schools across the city were left understaffed. The District’s Arts Department took a substantial hit, and schools were lucky if they were left with one art or music teacher.

“When we had the cuts, the schools just looked like they were bare-bones,” said Jennifer Bieter, the District’s budget director. “You had a principal, you had your teachers, you had a secretary, and if you were lucky, you had a counselor.”

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, all students in grades K-12 must be provided with a form of instruction in all four arts disciplines: dance, music, theater, and the visual arts.

It is the responsibility of the local districts to create written curricula in those areas, but it’s easy to skirt by and meet the state requirements in low-budget ways, especially in elementary schools. This means a 1st-grade class with only one teacher can sing songs and draw pictures with students and then be able to give them an art grade, allowing the principal to easily cut certified art and music teachers.

Fast-forward seven years to the current academic year. Though arts budgets have not recovered to their pre-“doomsday” levels, every elementary and middle school in the city now has some amount of art resources, and schools with 300 students or fewer are given an extra $50,000 to help support the needs of their students, including arts-related funding.

Living with less budget

Recovering from the budget crisis took both money and creative planning.

“One thing that is to the district’s credit that probably doesn’t get recognized a lot is that when we did the cuts, we tried to cut administration more than we cut anything at the schools,” Bieter said. “The people that worked in this building, half of the people were laid off in an effort to make the schools have less of an effect.”

Budget and spending processes are driven by Superintendent William Hite’s four anchor goals for the District: literacy education, college and career support, having a great staff and balancing the budget. Bieter explained that every choice and policy gets vetted against these core goals, specifically art and music, and how it uniquely furthers literacy and students’ future education.

The District spent 2016 and 2017 making sure each school had core personnel in place. This included hiring assistant principals, nurses, counselors, and reintroducing some AP classes back into the curriculum with new English and math books. However, as the Arts Department saw, other than what was legally required by the state, anything extra for arts is not considered core.

Frank Machos, executive director of the district’s Office of Arts & Academic Enrichment, said that despite feeling the pinch from budget cuts, the “make it work” philosophy of the arts department prepared the staff to be resourceful and make do with what they had.

“It was tough, but we definitely wanted to come in from day one in our positions and be innovative and start to bring more of what was missing in the curriculum,” Machos said.

One of the largest and most impactful policy changes has been the introduction of an art and music per-pupil allotment last year. The allotment of $10 per elementary student, $15 per middle school student, and $20 per high school student meant that this money went directly to the schools themselves. In collaboration with principals, each art or music teacher was able to spend this money solely on art and music supplies for their school.

“In total this year we gave out $1.6 million that went directly to schools for them to make their own purchases as they need it,” Bieter said.

Student artwork displayed in what is known as “The Gallery” in District headquarters.

Smaller budget initiatives were also introduced, such as acquiring additional funding for transportation for art-related school trips and performances.

“They’ve been to Kimmel [Center], they perform at other schools as a group,” Bieter said. “It’s not huge, but it’s just these little things that make the process nicer and makes it not feel like you’re trying to scrape together nickels and dimes to let kids go on these trips.”

Creative planning

The process of rebuilding arts education in the District was not necessarily driven by a goal to restore the department to where it was before the budget crisis, Bieter said. Instead, administrators tried to reinvest in a way that made sense for how students learn about and encounter art in an increasingly digital and networked world.

Deborah Klose, the District’s director of art, theater, and dance, said this included setting up a digital media art curriculum. With a shift in curricular focus and budget for added tech equipment, students now have the opportunity to create technically complex projects in a variety of media including virtual reality, animation, and stop-motion.

A focus on technical and digital skills is showing up even in general arts classrooms, Klose said.

“They might be doing claymation and they have to use the technology to do that, but they’re still modeling then they are taking it a step further with the technology,” she said.

Because students spend much of their out-of-class time consuming culture on the internet and mobile devices, the district has begun to think of digital media art as its own medium. This has meant shifting from a philosophy of “can we do [art] cheaper and easier,” to “can we engage students more effectively using systems that they know,” Machos said.

Many teachers who are apprehensive about bringing new tech-based learning into their classrooms have the opportunity to strengthen their craft at local universities, such as University of the Arts, Klose said. The Professional Institute for Educators includes intensive summer programs in specialized areas such as digital photography, graphic design, and web design.

“I always gravitated toward an artist doing something I didn’t know anything about,” said Klose, who used to teach digital photography classes. “So, I would learn and then I would turn that training over to more of my students. That whole concept is now being embraced by our teachers which is huge because they were afraid of that.”

Funding pressures at the state level

The pressures that led to the doomsday budget crisis were not only felt at the city-level, but at the state-level as well.

The budget for arts education in Pennsylvania has seen slight increases during Gov. Wolf’s tenure. Jamie Dunlap, chief of creative catalysts and lifelong learning for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA) said that support from the state allows his organization to offer targeted grants to arts education organizations across Pennsylvania.

“There’s definitely been an increase in support for education,” Dunlap said. “But for our budget, we’ve had a little bit of an increase and then it’s remained about the same for the last four years.”

Though Philadelphia educators have found media arts and digital media to be an engaging and effective use of limited funds, Pennsylvania currently does not have curriculum standards governing media arts programs statewide, though national organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Art Education Association offer best educational practices. Dunlap said while there is a desire and a need to bring in individuals using various digital platforms and mixed media to schools across the state, locating artists capable of teaching these skills has proved difficult.

“I think depending on the location of the partner, sometimes they struggle with finding artists in that discipline area,” Dunlap said. “So maybe in the northern tier, where you’re going across the top of the state in the more rural counties, they might have a more challenging time in finding artists that fit that description versus Pittsburgh and Philly or some of the more urban areas.”

Partners help fill gaps

When the School District of Philadelphia feels state initiatives and local funding are stretched too thin, it searches for support among private and philanthropic partners.

“With us not having any funding, we really had to prioritize the conversation with philanthropy and external partners to make sure what they were doing was meeting the needs of our kids and our teachers,” Machos said.

To target supply needs in a cost-effective and equitable way, Machos’ office looked for ways to give individual teachers control over their own supply budgets. Art teachers can now purchase supplies with predetermined budgets through Blick Art Materials’ website, who already had a purchasing agreement with the district. Teachers no longer have to go through complicated purchasing processes to get supplies for their classrooms, they simply fill an online shopping cart and try not to exceed their allotted budget, Machos said.

Erica Mandell, an art teacher at the General George A. McCall School, said that when she first began teaching in the district in 2014, she had minimal supplies. To get her through the school year, she began accepting donations from an environmental fair her mother works at in her New Jersey hometown.

“I was hoarding supplies,” Mandell said. “People donated paper and markers and just whatever they had. But when I started at McCall, I really had supplies. Starting last year we actually had a budget which was incredible and very much appreciated.”

For music programs, administrators conducted a Districtwide needs assessment, identifying what instruments certain schools had, what instruments were needed, and what instruments they may have on hand, but rarely use.

This helped the office to know where current and future resources were most needed. It also helped them ask local partners and philanthropic organizations for the direct support that would more effectively meet anticipated needs of music programs.

For example, the city reorganized its partnership with the Philadelphia Orchestra, focusing efforts on increasing support for the district’s All City Orchestra Program.

“We really restructured those partnerships in a huge way,” Machos said. “I don’t know that would have happened if we didn’t have the budget crisis. Of course, we would rather have just been healthy, but that was definitely the upside of it.”

Machos recognizes the value and importance of these relationships.

“They [Philadelphia Orchestra] were investing quite a bit of money from their education division into our schools, and All-City Orchestra was not part of the orchestra’s education program,” he said. “One of the things they did was shifted their funding to support our direct needs of presenting our All-City festival.”

In 2017, the District, in collaboration with the Neubauer Family Foundation, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education unveiled its new multi-phased Arts and Creativity Framework initiative.

The Arts and Creativity Framework is a strategic plan meant to link resources where they are most needed in the district. The plan identifies eight core elements: arts planning teams, schedule, curriculum, partners, supplies, professional learning, visibility, and advocacy. While all facets are key to arts growth, Machos said the last two points were especially important for community impact.

“It’s one thing to put up an art display and the parents come and see it and it’s great, it’s another thing to have it front and center at a local coffee shop and have a night where invite the local community and talk about the impact of it,” he said. “This was the partnership work, this idea of shared delivery became kind of our calling card.”

Researchers learned that, by paying art teacher salaries, the District actually operated as one of the largest funders of art in the city.

“We [the School District of Philadelphia] actually invest over $50 million a year in our visual art, music, theater, dance and media teacher’s salaries, and benefits,” Machos said. “That makes us the third-largest cultural organization in the city of Philadelphia.”

The framework began with research looking at the cultural and artistic work happening in Philadelphia over the past 10-15 years. This work was compared to equivalent projects in other cities that had similar arts funding opportunities as Philadelphia, yet had more programs in place for students.

The initiative itself not only helped principals learn how they can create more opportunities for students, but also how to work well with partners in arts organizations. The release of an interactive Arts Ecosystem Map was created as a resource to show both the district’s current arts education resources and where potential partners could best invest to improve existing programs.

Proponents of the initiative say that it has helped students to become directly involved in community and professional arts opportunities, such as working booths at the Roots Picnic and Made in America Festival, and taking field trips to graphic design firms to learn about careers that might not be at an arts organization, but use arts skills.

Students have also become involved in creating “mini-industries” right in their classrooms, Machos said. This past spring, 10th grade students at Hill Freedman World Academy — funded largely by Philadelphia nonprofit LiveConnections — wrote, produced and designed graphics for an album entitled “Wake Up Everybody!” The album also included vocal appearances by Machos and Hite.

Still more to do

Despite the many positive improvements to arts education in the District, challenges still remain in trying to create and implement an entirely new curriculum with a tighter budget.

“It’s a slow process,” Klose said. “You can’t go from zero to 60 in two seconds.”

Machos said one of the greatest challenges to redeveloping arts curriculum remains the equity of resources from school to school. He said they could tell every school to offer songwriting and recording, but many schools might not have any equipment and school staff may have different priorities.

Students from Jules E. Mastbaum High School created accordion books representative of an Asian aesthetic that focused on finding the beauty within nature.

“It’s not to dismiss there are parts of the city that are under-resourced and do need the resources,” Machos said. “But if we are going to put an arts program in a part of the city that’s been traumatized by youth violence, we’re going to think about it a little differently than, ‘Hey, all those kids should learn how to paint and make clay and play flutes and oboes.’”

Even as school funding remains a perennial concern in Philadelphia, Klose and others keep looking for reasons to hope, while finding creative ways to offer new curricula to students.

“It is challenging and it does cost money,” she said. “It’s going to be a slow process, but it can be done.”

This story originally ran on, a project of the Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab at Temple University.