Saving the arts at LAUSD

As the executive director of Save the Arts, a non-profit organization designed to promote arts education in the fiscally embattled LAUSD, Suzanne Nichols is used to being on the frontline for innovative social change.

Save the Arts

Suzanne Nichols, founder of Save the Arts.

Nichols founded Save the Arts to address the gutting of arts positions and programs across the district. On Saturday, May 18, Save the Arts will hold its annual silent auction and benefit at the Coconut Grove.

What is your background?

I am from Oakland, Calif., a city that promotes individuality, social change and self-expression. I am a National Board Certified teacher with a multiple subject credential as well as a degree in theatre.

I come from a family of teachers, so teaching is in my DNA. I’ve been a teacher with the LAUSD since 1997. I started out as a third grade teacher at Normandie Elementary School. While I was at Normandie, I infused theater into my teaching. For example, I used Beatles’ songs to teach about empathy and other concepts.

I feel like you can’t separate the arts from the core curriculum of Social Studies, Math and Language Arts. However, you also have to teach the arts for arts’ sake. From 1999 until 2009, LAUSD had a model elementary arts education program. In 2010, there was talk of the arts program being eliminated.That’s when I got the idea for Save the Arts. In 2011, arts education for elementary schools was on the chopping block again. So, I along with the help of many amazing parents, students, teachers and community members, including 24th Street Theatre Company, put together a benefit auction at various institutions to save the arts for elementary schools.

That year, we raised enough funds to save a theater arts position. At our second annual Save the Arts Benefit in 2012, we were able to provide an extra day of music arts for students at an LAUSD elementary school. This year we hope to raise $32,000 to provide visual arts, music, theater arts and dance for elementary schools.

What are some of the major arts projects and initiatives you’ve been involved in over the past year?

The district has determined that the arts should be part of the core curriculum. However, the missing link is that it should be cross-disciplinary as well as independently taught. In the spirit of teaching art for arts’ sake, as well as integrating instruction, my students and I have been working on several projects.

We’ve developed and mounted plays of their creation that allow them to express their life experiences utilizing the arts standards. Some of the topics that they’ve chosen to tackle through performance are bullying (cyber and physical), acceptance and friendship.

In regards to instruction integration, some of my students and I have tackled topical subjects. My students just finished a performance about immigration with poetry and performances about Angel Island, the Braceros, Dolores Huerta, and Cesar Chavez and the formation of the United Farm Workers with fourth graders. At one of my schools, I’m working on a performance of The Wiz with a fifth grade class, and focusing on teaching the arts standards through children’s stories with my first grade students.

My main focus has been raising awareness of the importance of a well-rounded education to all of our children and raising funds to help keep credentialed arts teachers in the classroom. That being said, I am excited about the resolution that School Board Member Nury Martinez passed, which asks that funding for the arts be built up to the 2008 levels. That’s when there were nearly 400 credentialed elementary arts teachers serving students. Today, we have just over 200 credentialed arts teachers serving all of the elementary students.

I am also hopeful about what the newly formed L.A. Fund will be able to do to help rebuild the robust arts program that the District had in 2008.

Why do you feel arts education is such a pressing social justice issue? 

Arts education is a pressing social justice issue because the arts are the great equalizer and ought to be available to every child. When the arts are taken out of public schools, the arts become unavailable to a large percentage of students, particularly low to moderate income and minority students.

LAUSD has amazing, credentialed, arts education teachers. This means that they are not only well-versed in their art forms whether it’s music, dance, theatre or visual arts, but it also means that they are qualified credentialed teachers.

That’s what our children deserve – arts teachers who are also trained in pedagogy and know how to best impart the information being taught. It’s a social justice issue because the arts allow youth to exhibit multiple intelligences. Some students are visual learners, and if they don’t have that opportunity to exercise this capacity it will be underdeveloped.

Unfortunately, the orientation of national public education is that if it’s not being tested then it doesn’t matter, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. You can’t evaluate critical thinking skills, resilience, innovation, problem-solving abilities, or the ability to collaborate with others by having them fill in a bubble on a test. Employers are looking for creativity, problem-solvers, innovative thinkers, and people with critical thinking skills, things that the arts teach in abundance. That’s why the arts are a social justice issue.

Yet, the arts are the first to be cut when talking about education because they are considered extra, rather than essential. I wish that those who want to invest in education would put their money into building the robust education programs that are essential to a well-rounded education. Use your money to work to make arts a mandatory subject so that all children get it.

Politicians and philanthropists will get more “bang for their buck” investing in public education. The arts build confidence and resilience. It helps kids that might otherwise be outcasts embrace their difference and be respectful toward others. Giving kids arts education at an early age will equip them with the skills to navigate through life.

If you don’t give kids the tools that they need and the ability to bounce back earlier in life, they might not be able to do it when they get older. In the future, these kids are going to be running the world and making policy so this does impact you directly. We’re a village and a community, in one way or another you will be impacted by the fact that all kids are not getting a well-rounded education.

For more information on Save the Arts, contact them at [email protected] or visit

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