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Schools aim to enrich students by expanding culturally responsive arts education

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As students start heading back to school, many have decisions to make, like whether to take choir or theater. But some schools are expanding their offerings to make room for art that reflects students' cultural heritage. Cap Radio's Srishti Prabha reports from Sacramento, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

JANAPRIYAN LEVINE: Very good. Wow. OK, and who remembers how many beats is this?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Ten.

LEVINE: Ten. And how do we count?

SRISHTI PRABHA, BYLINE: It's a spring morning at Del Paso Manor Elementary School, and the 10- and 11-year-olds in the class are sitting cross-legged on the floor as Janapriyan Levine teaches them the tabla, a pair of drums played in the Middle East and South Asia.

RUSTAM: I like tabla because it's played in our home country, and I wanted to go back in our country and then play for some people who are inspired to do tabla.

PRABHA: That's student Rustam, whose family recently came here as refugees from Afghanistan. We aren't using his last name because his father still fears for his family's safety. Rustam's younger sister, Hosai, is also in the tabla class.

HOSAI: My mom always wanted to do that, but she didn't get a chance to. So I wanted to teach her.

PRABHA: For both Hosai and Rustam, these tabla lessons have helped create a sense of belonging in a foreign country. A 2019 study from Rice University found this approach can lead to better educational outcomes and improve social and emotional health for students. But those benefits can be hard to tap into when so much of arts education focuses on Eurocentric culture that diverse student populations have difficulty relating to.

KEVIN KANE: Our children and our students are the vessels of their culture.

PRABHA: Kevin Kane runs a UCLA program that encourages performing artists to work in local classrooms. He says in his line of work, the conversation around arts education has progressed from just access to the arts.

KANE: What we've really been leaning into is culturally sustaining. It does involve immigration or migration stories or exile stories, does involve what it means to be a marginalized or underrepresented person, historically-discriminated-against person. It involves all of that.

PRABHA: Hosai and Rustam's dad, who we're calling by his first initial, R, finds a joy in the cultural connection his children get to make in their Sacramento school.

R: It definitely makes me a lot happier because the time that I really wanted to learn one of the musical instruments, time did not help me.

PRABHA: He has fond memories of the tabla playing at family gatherings back in Afghanistan, but he never got a chance to learn how to play himself.

R: So I really want my kids to either play tabla or other musical instruments as they love to do.

ALEX ALMARAZ: Without arts education, I wouldn't be here. If it wasn't for hip-hop, I'd probably be incarcerated or probably not being in the life that I really want.

PRABHA: Alex Almaraz is a teaching artist who leads hip-hop classes in Sacramento City Unified Schools as part of a collaboration with the nonprofit CLARA.

ALMARAZ: Good. And then there was other dancers that really brought life to the culture, right? It was not just him that created the mood.

PRABHA: Almaraz's passion for the arts stems from LA's dance scene, where he continues to pursue street dance and has lectured at colleges. He says his work with public school students has been life-changing.

ALMARAZ: To be able to be an individual like myself who is a Black and brown individual, to speak and be able to show them that there's an opportunity that can - they can be just like me and be able to speak in front of a class and have an authority that's positive and it gives them a new outlook on life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALMARAZ: Can we do it? I need all the energy in the world.

PRABHA: Arts educators like Almaraz embody the power of culturally reflective arts education.

ALMARAZ: And five and six and five, six, seven, eight. Go.

PRABHA: Such programs take work and close collaboration with local communities. California has dedicated almost $1 billion to arts education this year.

ALMARAZ: Spread it out a little bit more. Here we go.

PRABHA: Advocates like Kevin Kane are optimistic this money will usher in a new era of arts education in the state, hopefully setting a precedent for the rest of the country.

For NPR News, I'm Srishti Prabha in Sacramento.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRICKETS CHIRPING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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