On a recent Thursday morning, about 25 third-graders at Mistral Elementary School gathered around instructor Cristina Velaszquez as she began the day's art lesson. The instruction centered on Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, focusing on her colorful series of mushroom paintings.
The lesson was about how to make simple drawings, showing how shapes and contours can be represented by drawing simple lines. After some brief tutorials, the students started sketching their own mushrooms using stencils.
Velaszquez is sort of a roaming arts instructor, employed by the Community School of Music and Arts (CSMA) to visit a circuit of schools across the Peninsula. While her classes often vary, the situation is usually the same: She's providing art classes that the students might not otherwise have.
When it comes to public education, music and the arts typically get the short end of the stick. The emphasis for schools is often on technical skills that hold the promise of higher test scores and a future career for students. This is the mantra behind the STEM education (that's science, technology, engineering and math) that seeks to funnel students into the Silicon Valley workforce.
CSMA instructors are quick to defend the value of an arts education as a crucial source of empathy and critical-thinking skills. Even in a practical sense in the job market, an arts training complements many of the technical skills being promoted by educators. Statistically, students with more than three years of arts training score about 15 percent higher in creativity, 10.2 percent higher in compassion, and 7.2 percent higher in integrating skills and knowledge, according to research by California State University, San Marcos.
"An arts education helps students to synthesize and express themselves," said CSMA arts program manager Jennifer Mineer. "The whole point is to give them a diverse set of talents to express themselves with."
CSMA is one of seven nonprofit organizations serving Mountain View residents that benefit from the Voice's annual Holiday Fund. Donations are divided equally among the nonprofits and are administered by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation at no cost, with 100 percent of contributions going to the recipients.
CSMA is helping provide music and art instruction at about 45 schools spread across 12 districts throughout the Peninsula. For more than 30 years, this instruction has provided a critical lifeline for an artistic education that might otherwise be eliminated from public schools.
Students participating in the CSMA program receive weekly art and music classes from kindergarten through fourth grade. Upon reaching fifth grade, each student chooses whether to further pursue music or art.
The actual amount of instruction time provided through CSMA varies at each school. Some schools sign up for weekly lessons, while others go for the minimum of 12 weeks.