Teaching artist Alex Almaraz teaches hip-hop dance to a class at Ethel Phillips Elementary School in Sacramento, Calif., on Friday, May 26, 2023. Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

By Srishti Prabha | Observer Staff Reporter

It’s almost the end of the school year on a hot, spring afternoon in Sacramento. Alex Almaraz is in the middle of teaching his last hip-hop dance lesson to a 5th-grade class at Ethel Phillips Elementary School.

“Who here knows Shabba Doo, Slim the Robot and Skeeter Rabbit?” Almaraz asked, incorporating the history of the dance form into the class. 

The song “Fantastic Voyage” by Lakeside played in the background as the kids laughed, danced and energetically raised their hands to answer questions.

Fifth-grade teacher Phyllis Wendt said she observed a shift in her students’ behavior after Almaraz’s classes.

“The school culture is to sit down, stay quiet, and all of a sudden they get to stand up, make movements and express themselves,” she said. “They’re more outgoing now and that surprises me. It’s kind of delightful to see.”

A child’s life trajectory can shift drastically when given access to culturally reflective arts education, according to Almaraz, who says he benefited from arts education in school. 

“To be a Black and Brown individual and show [kids] that they can be just like me and have an authority that’s positive, gives [kids] a new outlook on life.” Almaraz added, “If it wasn’t for hip-hop, I’d probably be incarcerated.”

At Ethel Phillips Elementary, where a majority of students are Black, Hispanic and Asian, culturally reflective arts education can improve life outcomes.

According to a 2011 report from the National Endowment for the Arts, since the 1980s, public schools have slowly disinvested in arts education and put more focus on math and reading. That shift has had an outsized impact on students of color. The report found that, from 1982 to 2008, white students experienced no change in their access to the arts, while students of color experienced reductions of around 40%. (The NEA hasn’t released updated numbers since 2011.)

The culturally reflective approach Almaraz advocates for aims to shrink that gap – and it can come with a host of benefits.

A 2019 study from Rice University found that community-informed arts education, which reflected the cultural upbringing of students, led to better educational outcomes and social and emotional health for students.

Those benefits can be hard to tap into when so much of arts education focuses on Euro-centric culture, which is unrelatable for diverse student populations. 

Talayah Bouttie Smith shows off a move learned in a hip-hop dance class at Ethel Phillips Elementary School in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, May 26, 2023. Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

Almaraz is a teaching artist for the dance nonprofit CLARA in collaboration with the Sacramento City Unified School District. Teaching artists, who also continue to pursue their art professionally, have filled the void of arts teachers in Sacramento County. 

Almaraz’s passion for the arts originated in the Los Angeles dance scene, where he continues to pursue street dance and has lectured at area colleges. He was part of Future Shock Los Angeles, a dance company that he co-founded, which is where he says he “began learning the aspects of teaching the history of street dance.” 

The Visual and Performing Arts Education program at UCLA is unique in its advocacy for culturally reflective practices in the classroom. Its director, Kevin Kane, has known Almaraz since high school. 

“Alex [Almaraz] is the present and the future of culturally relevant teaching in the arts and is emblematic of the importance of representation,” he said. “It involves immigration, migration stories or exile stories. It involves what it means to be bilingual, marginalized, underrepresented or historically discriminated against a person – it involves all that.”

Kane said he finds that, in his line of work, the conversation around arts education has progressed beyond just access to the arts.

“Arts can be a kind of leveler” 

In another corner of Sacramento, Del Paso Manor Elementary School is attempting to bridge the cultural divide for new Afghan residents in the region with the tabla — a pair of drums native to the Middle East and South Asia. 

A group of 10-and-11-year-olds sit cross-legged on the classroom floor.

“Ghe Ghe Na Na, Ghe Ghe Na Na, Ghe Ghe The Te, Ghe Ghe Na Na,” the kids recited in the classroom before playing the tabla. 

Students Hosai, Rustam, Maryam Fayazi and Simone Barnes participate in a tabla class at Del Paso Manor Elementary School in Sacramento. Courtesy of San Juan Unified School District

For two siblings in the class, learning the tabla transcends the art.

“I like tabla because we played in our home country and I wanted to go back and play for some people who are inspired to do tabla,” said Rustam. We’re using just his first name because his parents fear for their family’s safety. Rustam’s family is one of many Afghan families that have sought asylum in Sacramento since 2021.

Rustam’s younger sister Hosai came to the tabla class with a different purpose. 

“I learned my mom always wanted to [play the tabla] but she didn’t get a chance to and so I wanted to teach her,” she said.

Describing their experiences in the classroom, Hosai and Rustam touched upon the many benefits of arts education — including making the unknown feel more familiar and finding community.

Their dad R, who we’re referring to by just his first initial, has fond memories of the tabla, played at family gatherings back in Afghanistan. But he never got a chance to learn how to play himself.

“It definitely makes me happy because the time that I really wanted to learn one of the musical instruments, time did not help me,” he said. “So I really want my kids to play tabla or other musical instruments as they love to do.”

For Hosai and Rustam’s family, tabla classes opened the door to possibilities, one of the many reasons inclusive arts education is valuable in school, according to UCLA’s Kane. 

“Arts can be a kind of leveler and really inspire young people to dream big,” he explained. “Meaning you may turn into a Will.I.Am, or you may be a classroom teacher because you loved the teachers that taught you drama.”

However, such programming is entirely dependent on sustainable practices: time, money and staffing. At UCLA, Kane says his program has “been leaning into culturally sustaining” arts education.

“Our children and our students are the vessels of their culture,” he emphasized.

Unity and community through muraling

In Sacramento, some programs have taken time to develop, like the Encina Preparatory High School mural design class. The majority of students at the school are not meeting state reading and math standards, almost 90% are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and half the student body is chronically absent.  

Encina Preparatory High’s art teacher Ruby Chacón, a Chicana muralist for 20 years before entering the teaching profession, recalls the absence of her culture in the school curriculum.

“I didn’t see a lot of the stories of my own cultural background or identity,” she said. “And I think you internalize a lot of that, and it really has an impact on your growth.”

When she started to create images representing her community, the accompanying power emboldened her community. And she was determined to bring that into the classroom.

“There’s a huge disconnect between schools and communities,” she said. “And the communities have a really big influence on what the students are bringing to schools,” 

Her mural design class is unique, placing culture at the forefront.

“If you validate their experiences and their voices and their identities, they become more engaged. They feel like they have a voice,” Chacón said. 

Don Hicks with the Lotería murals painted by his class to be featured on the walls of Encina Preparatory High School. Srishti Prabha / Observer

Dons Hicks, a junior who was in the mural design class, identified that “muraling is different” than other forms of art in that it fosters “unity in recognizing our surroundings and community.” 

His class spent the past school year on a collaborative mural, based on a whole school survey, to bring the spirit of the school to life.

“Imagine walking with your friends down the hallway and getting to say that I did that right there,” Hicks said. 

It took three years for Chacón’s mural design class to come to fruition, which she said was born from having to teach four sections of her Art 1 class and the growing prevalence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I had students that would take the Art 1 class over and over and over again” because there were no other offerings, Chacón noted. 

Chacón left Encina Preparatory at the end of the last school year, and though the mural design class is expected to continue, parents can’t imagine it without Chacón. 

“She is rare,” said parent Magali Kincaid. “You will not find another Ruby Chacón. Her classroom, for me, is culturally relevant.”

Kincaid and Hicks underscore the sense of pride that accompanies culturally reflective arts practices. 

From a sense of belonging to improved educational outcomes, culturally driven arts programming in Sacramento showcases the potential to change the narrative for students of color in the county. Yet, being able to sustain these programs continues to plague the school system.

Arts programming like hip-hop, tabla and mural classes take work and close collaboration with local communities. California has allocated almost $1 billion to arts education for this coming school year, the most money to be given by the state historically.

Advocates like Kevin Kane say they are optimistic this money signals a new era of arts education in the state, hopefully setting a precedent for the rest of the country. 

Srishti Prabha is an education reporter and Report For America corps member in collaboration with CapRadio and The Sacramento Observer. Their focus is K-12 education in Sacramento’s Black communities.