Steeven Sandoval

Eleven-year-old Redwood Middle School student Dulce Arreola, foreground right, poses for a photograph with singer Steeven Sandoval during his performance with Mariachi Real del Oro at the school in October.  The performance was arranged as part of a collaboration between the Napa Valley Unified School District and local arts organizations, under the district's 2016 "Arts Education Master Plan."

In the era of relentless testing and performance measures in schools, it has become dismayingly easy to dismiss the arts as “soft” subjects that can safely be brushed aside in favor of the supposedly “hard” matters of reading, writing and science.

As a result, when budgets are cut and resources constrained, arts classes are among the first to go.

But the reality is that art is part of what makes us human. Creative expression, from singing to painting, writing to dancing, is a universal human activity, one that transcends boundaries of culture, race, and language. When we neglect artistic education, we deny an important part of ourselves.

That is why it is so gratifying to see our local schools fighting to maintain and build arts education for our children.

A visible symbol of that success came this week, as the Napa Valley Unified School District and several other districts in the county were awarded a $750,000 state grant to fund training and curriculum development in order to integrate art into the classroom, particularly for elementary school students.

It will also fund a free two-week arts and science summer camp for English Learner students in grades 3-5, planned to start this summer.

This didn’t just happen by accident. It is the outgrowth of years of effort by the NVUSD and outside arts groups, including Arts Council Napa Valley, the Napa Valley Education Foundation, and Festival Napa Valley, which alone has offered up something like $500,000 in funding for such programs.

“As a system, we are focused on a common set of goals and objectives to provide the very best outcomes for our students,” NVUSD Superintendent Dr. Rosanna Mucetti said in a release announcing the grant. “This grant supports our strategic efforts by ensuring students have access to the arts so they can thrive academically, socially and emotionally. I am also thrilled that the grant provides professional development for teachers and strengthens our partnerships that directly align to our strategic plan goals.”

In 2016, the district’s trustees approved a five-year “arts education master plan,” overseen by longtime principal and teacher Chuck Neidhoefer. It was clear at the time that the district had good arts programs, but they were scattered around at different schools and were highly dependent on the skill or passion of a particular teacher or a site-specific commitment by an alumni group, non-profit organization, or benefactor. That meant that access to arts education was uneven across the district, with some students getting very little.

We met with Neidhoefer and the sponsoring arts organizations back in 2016 and we were impressed with their vision. We met again with them this week and it was clear our optimism was not misplaced.

The first two years of the master plan were devoted to creating an inventory of what programs exist and institutionalizing those programs across all the schools. Niedhoefer said that effort has resulted in group meetings among teachers at various schools, increased use of funding for professional development by teachers, and a greater awareness of the importance of the arts among administrators.

One of the things that became obvious early on, he told us, was that arts education was particularly patchy in the early elementary grades. This new grant is a response to that discovery and will be used to help early-grade teachers integrate basic art skills into the existing curriculum, such as adding dance exercises to PE classes.

The idea, he said, is to have all students arrive at high school – which all have well-developed specialty programs such as music and theater – having been exposed to the basics of artistic expression and thinking from the earliest possible grades.

We applaud the district for its continued commitment to the arts, and we are thankful for the county’s vibrant – and generous — arts organizations for helping make it possible.

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The Napa Valley Register Editorial Board consists of Publisher Davis Taylor, Editor Sean Scully, and public members Cindy Webber, Ed Shenk, Mary Jean Mclaughlin and Chris Hammaker.