When I first started as president and CEO of San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory (SDYS), I found the board members were divided between two strongly held points of view. One group believed in the primacy of musical excellence and the other focused on broadening access to music education. We resolved this split through creation of an institutional vision that expanded the activities of SDYS to include advocacy.
Our first step on this journey was to analyze our program reach. We used our student data along with county census data to determine the geographic distribution and socioeconomic range of our young musicians. Our board was surprised and dismayed to discover that 75 percent of our musicians came from the region’s most affluent neighborhoods.
What started as an investigation into our own data shifted into an examination of the overall music education ecosystem. We wanted to know why we weren’t attracting students from areas with long-standing high school orchestra and band programs. Though we found secondary music education broadly available, we learned music had been missing from elementary schools for more than 10 years, especially schools serving a majority of low-income students. Without early access, many students were just starting on instruments in seventh grade, in contrast to their peers from families and schools with resources to start them in early primary grades.
This finding built a bridge between the two priorities our board had been wrestling to resolve. What had been a polarity synthesized into the single priority of giving all students access to the rigor of musical excellence. The access camp realized that without a commitment to excellence, students with need wouldn’t progress to the level of their peers. Likewise, the excellence camp realized that without equitable access, thousands of children would simply be unable to benefit from the rewards of making and learning music.
Our next leap was to the notion that SDYS couldn’t solely scale up from its 500 musicians to reach all 500,000 in San Diego County. Instead of thinking internally, we embraced the fact that school systems give education to every child. We conjectured that a lack of priority, not resources, was the fundamental reason schools weren’t teaching music. We committed to showing school and district leaders that investing in music education would be an added value to assisting with their overall educational goals and obligations.
Our first partnership was with Chula Vista Elementary School District (CVESD), California’s largest K-6 district with nearly 30,000 students. From the outset, we made it clear to district leaders that our overall goal was to see them return music education system wide. In 2010, we started with 65 third-graders and began tracking their academic and social progress compared to school site and grade-level peers. Everyone was thrilled to see them outperform the average on standardized test and have their parents become more engaged in the schools.
At the end of the first year, the district made its first reinvestment in music education. We diligently made the case for more investment through performances, partnerships, community events, and school board presentations. A key partner was the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, which couples granting to schools with advocacy. Year by year, the district expanded its investment with a culminating commitment in 2015 to return music and arts education to ever child at every school with $15 million to hire 80 new visual and performing arts teachers.
This large-scale investment affirmed to our board that we could extend our impact immensely by merging advocacy with our program work. We didn’t simply try to convince school leaders of the many benefits children receive from learning music. We made a concerted effort to show them.
Our advocacy included much more than seeking district investments. They needed SDYS to help restore the capacity to offer music. The schools had been without music educators for so long that the knowledge of how to incorporate it into the school day and even how to identify a quality music teacher was incomplete. Additionally, restoring comfort among teachers and administrators with having music as part of the school day was necessary. Piloting in-school music on campuses for two years developed conditions that prepared the full system for the ultimate return of the arts.
Now that the Chula Vista Elementary School District has returned the arts system wide, its become our partner in advocating for music education. In collaboration with researchers at UC San Diego, we are working with the district to analyze academic and attendance data from the years before the arts were on campuses to the present. District leaders regularly join us to present at local education events, state legislative hearings, and national convenings. They publish articles about the value of the arts to student learning and issue press releases that include the contribution the arts make to the schools.
The success of our advocacy has inspired the SDYS board be even more bold. Its members realize the cause for music education can advance even further if we focus on more than our own direct advocacy. They’ve empowered the staff to share all we’ve learned from working with the Chula Vista district and have begun to spread the power of combining programs and advocacy to music education champions across the nation.