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Arts Education and Strategic Planning – Surf’s up!

Laurie Schell • AdvocacyAugust 2021 • August 13, 2021

My surfer sons tell me that paddling out and waiting for the perfect wave is part of the “surf’s up” gestalt, meaning conditions are right, right now. As a non-surfer I might describe it as a state of readiness based on data and the immediacy of the moment. A calculation of wind speed and direction, water and air temperature, a sense of the oncoming flow and movement of the water, risk v reward. You’re prepared for it. Surf’s Up.

Time is Now
A strategic planning process for arts education is like that “surf’s up” feeling of readiness. In a recent public forum, deputy secretary of education Cindy Marten ascribed much of the success of San Diego Unified’s (where she served as superintendent) arts education initiative to having a robust strategic plan for the arts. Her advice to music and arts advocates is to develop a well-articulated plan, one that creates vision and direction and acknowledges school district values, strengths, and challenges. 

With the advent of ESSA and well-rounded education, ESSER recovery funds, Title I and Title IV Part A funding, we are seeing new possibilities for music and the arts in education. A well-crafted strategic plan is designed to move all stakeholders forward in a positive way, enabling new and productive conversations about systemic issues of access and equity.

Strategic planning is not new; it has long been an essential tool in the business sector and has become more so for community and governmental entities, including school districts. The idea of developing a districtwide strategic plan for arts education is a more recent idea. 

While serving as the director of the California Alliance for Arts Education (now CreateCA), I co-authored the first edition of the Alliance’s The Insider’s Guide to Arts Education Planning in 2007. Now in its third edition, the guide has been refined through practice and used extensively throughout California with school districts and county offices of education. 

The Insider’s Guide was conceived “as both a guidebook and a hands-on technical assistance process that enables districts to assess current arts learning programs and funding allocations, identify gaps in delivery, and create strategic plans that will ensure equitable access for all students in all arts disciplines.” It is gratifying to come back to this work and experience anew its vibrancy and relevance.

Process Unmasked
The process of strategic planning is itself straightforward. Simply put, a strategic plan endeavors to chart a course for the future by identifying strategies that will enable long-term success. There are many ways to approach the task. 

An effective process (and resulting plan) is flexible and adaptable to a changing landscape. The basics include reviewing current programs, identifying delivery/resource gaps, and developing strategies to address those gaps. My process has evolved to also include a deeper analysis of the landscape prior to beginning the planning process, in recognition of the complexities of school communities as well as the layered and interconnected ecosystem for arts education.  

Based on facilitation methods from the Institute of Cultural Affairs, the Insider’s Guide process values full participation from stakeholders across the arts ed ecosystem, is flexible and customizable, and is collaborative and consensus-building at its core. Though the process is linear, there is fresh thinking that happens with a well-facilitated process, a secret sauce that brings it all together in unexpected ways.

Consider the following activities as a guide for approaching the process:

Ascertainment (feasibility) study: Key stakeholder interviews and analysis to ascertain deeper understanding about the cultural, demographic, geographic, political, personal, and financial forces at work that impact program outcomes. 

Asset mapping: Inventory of current programs by school collected through a survey of building principals and central office data and augmented by data from the Arts Education Data Project, as available. Includes the contributions of community artists, agencies, and programs.

Vision and strategic direction: A group of cross-sector stakeholders gathers to review current program findings, understand what is behind gaps in access and participation, develop a vision, mission, values, and a set of strategic directions.

Implementation (work) plan: A smaller working group develops a concrete work plan with measurable objectives, timelines, budget, persons accountable, and resources required to address the gaps and achieve the desired vision.

Advocacy Benefits Beyond the Plan

While the resulting plan can be a true blueprint for the future, the planning process itself is of great value, in that it:

Engages a broad spectrum of stakeholders within the district and the larger community.

Provides opportunities for advocacy and relationship cultivation with administrators and school board members.

Shines a light on the complexity of the arts education ecosystem and the need for leadership and accountability.

Encourages communication, collaboration, and consensus among stakeholders.

Provides hard data on program delivery and resource gaps.

Conditions are right, right now. Surf’s up.

Laurie Schell is a lifelong advocate for music and arts education. She is founding principal of Laurie Schell Associates | ElevateArtsEd, providing consulting services and issue expertise in coalition building, public policy and advocacy, strategic planning, and program development with a focus on arts education.

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