Arts Education in Rural Communities

Imperial County

Name of County: Imperial County Office of Education
Region: 9
County Superintendent: Dr. Todd Finnel, Imperial County Superintendent of Schools
Cohort Lead: Queana Givens-Jarvis, Curriculum Coordinator
County Arts Lead: Michael Garcia

Imperial County spans 4,482 square miles of arid desert with a substantial agricultural-based economy.

About Imperial County

Imperial County (estimated pop. 181,827; U.S. Census Bureau, 2018) is located 120 miles southeast of San Diego, California, and 60 miles west of Yuma, Arizona. 25% of the workforce is employed in agriculture. Poverty persists in Imperial County making it one of the most economically distressed regions in California and this condition was exacerbated as a result of the COVID Pandemic. Nevertheless, Imperial County is a strong and resilient community a with rich cultural background. The mission of the Imperial County Office of Education (ICOE) is to improve the quality of life in our community. We work closely with Imperial County’s sixteen independent school districts as well as public service agencies, businesses, institutions of higher education, and elected officials to ensure that meeting the educational needs of local children is a community priority. We serve 37,703 students in 63 schools. 

Unemployment in the region has long been a persistent issue. An average of only 43% of families is considered able to meet the basic levels of self-sufficiency, with over one-fourth of all its residents and one-third of its children living in poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2014-2018, estimates suggest that 21.4% of Imperial County residents live below poverty levels, as compared to 12.8% for the State. The County also has the lowest per capita income ($17,590) in California ($35,021), and 75.8% of Imperial County students qualify for the Free and Reduced Price Meal program. Proximity to the Mexico border creates unique challenges for its residents. The region has become a flourishing drug-trafficking corridor for the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel moving drugs into the United States. Imperial County is considered one of the top-3 drug trafficking corridors in the U.S. and designated a High-Intensity Drug-Trafficking Area by the DEA (U.S. Dept. of Justice, 2011). 

  • 92.9% Hispanic or Latino (CA: 54.9%) – Highest rate in California 
  • 77.9% Socioeconomically Disadvantaged (CA: 60.7%) – 4th highest rate in California 
  • 39.7% English Learners (CA: 18.6%) – Highest rate in California 
  • 7.9% Migrant Education (CA: 0.8%) – 2nd highest rate in California 
  • 10.7% Special Education (CA: 11.7%) – 46th in California 
  • 0.8% Foster (CA: 0.5%) – 19thin California 
  • 4.2% Homeless (CA: 3.2%) – 15th in California

Unique Characteristics

  • Imperial County is known for extremely hot summers and mild not summers.
  • Visitors come to our valley for recreation in the sandy dunes and desert.  
  • The proximity to the Mexicali, Mexico border makes us a true transnational hub. Many students and their families have strong ties on both sides of the border.

Description of Arts Strategic Planning Process


The committee members were a mix of musicians, visual artists, actors, singers, dancers, educators and community members with a passion for the arts. 

Meeting 1 – December 9, 2019 

On day 1, the participants arrived eager but not sure of what they were going to be asked to do. Jim Thomas, California Alliance for Arts Education and facilitator of the planning, was introduced and immediately set the room at ease. We started with a welcoming line-up activity to investigate the 7 Norms of Collaboration. Mr. Thomas set the tone for how these 20 strangers would work together to achieve the outcomes of the planning process. Before long, the group was working as a team. The group was  introduced to the Key Components of an Arts Education Program. Understanding that quality curriculum and intentional instruction drive the Content; the commitment of resources and leadership enables Sustainability; and the relationships between people build the backbone of a fruitful Infrastructure; allowed the team to focus on the most important and impactful factors as we developed our vision for the plan. We literally threw our ideas up on the wall! 

Meeting 2 – January 30, 2020 

Day 2 began by reconnecting the team and naming our strengths and challenges. The group reviewed the previous day’s work, questioning whether initial ideas seemed to be under the purview of the district or the county office. Using expert facilitation skills, Mr. Thomas helped participants to sort, categorize, eliminate, and combine our ideas into 3 overarching goals. 

Meeting 3 – February 18, 2020 

On the final day, the team looked forward to imagining the steps necessary to move toward our goals. The group created action steps for each goal and recommendations for how districts could best support the actions of the county office. 

Key Goals of the Strategic Arts Plan

The planning process led to three overarching goals. 

  1. To Increase Access to High-Quality Arts Education for All Students
    When teachers are equipped with the knowledge and skills to create opportunities for kids to experience art, they are usually excited to try it. This plan aims to provide professional development targeted toward teachers (grades K-6). 
  2. To Leverage Resources to Maintain a Strong Arts Learning Community
    Creating a network-style community of practice focused on art instruction was a recommendation of the committee. ICOE plans to host an exchange of ideas and also use the group to provide continued guidance to the county office about the needs of the sites and districts. 
  3. To Ignite a Passion for Arts in Our Community
    An advantage to our small county are the relationships throughout the community. This goal aims to create opportunities and avenues to bring together educators, artists, and local businesses in various ways for the benefit of student art programs. Student art events, educator recognition, and useful online resources to promote the arts is the aim of this goal. 

Highlights and Strategic Directions Taken in the Implementation of Strategic Arts Plan

In our strategic plan, we identified a specific need to provide profession learning opportunities for elementary school teachers. During distances learning we collaborated with Riverside COE to provide a professional learner series to support teachers and families with arts at home. We maintained an active Arts advisory group.

We aimed to create an Art Lovers Network, where educators could come together to learn and share ideas about how to integrate more arts opportunities into the school day. We also noted a need to so outreach to leaders in district to better understand current arts initiatives and aspirations. The demands of teaching students and leading schools during this unstable time proved a barrier to moving this work forward.

Project ArCH: Arts for Culture and Healing – Project ArCH was made possible by the continued support of the Stuart Foundation and CCSESA. This funding allowed us to invite Dr. Merryl Goldberg, professor at CSU San Marcos, to join us for the first in-person training series since March 2020. Educators participated in the 4-session series that blended two face-to-face sessions and two Zoom sessions. They engaged in a variety of arts experiences that integrated Arts and Social and Emotional Learning and created a special bond between them.

Autumn & the Arts Brochure – Our strategic plan includes an aspirational goal of igniting passion for the arts in Imperial County. Recognizing that this goal would need to involve more than one department. The Superintendent’s office and ICOE Foundation took the lead on a new project – Autumn & the Arts. This inaugural event combined a silent auction of student artwork, a live concert of student singers and ensembles, and food tasting of a collaborative menu prepared and served by students from various culinary arts programs. Adult artist from the community also donated art to be auctioned for student scholarships. 

CRLP-IC Teacher Leaders- We are Water Protectors – In a collaboration with California Reading and Literature Project at ICOE (CRLP-IC), one of the teachers on the arts advisory board members volunteered to lead an integrated visual arts and literacy lesson for the Teacher Leaders (TLs). The CRLP-IC TLs come together to learn and complete Teacher Action Research Cycles based on any of the learning we do together. Their focus this year is building critical consciousness by examining social identity. The lesson was based on the award-winning children’s book, We Are Water Protectors.

What have you seen as greatest advances as a result of implementing your strategic plan?

The greatest advances as a result of implementing our strategic plan include connection and content area integration. As we have re-engaged in the statewide efforts to advance the arts, we have connected with generous arts educators who give of their time and talents to support the teachers and leaders of Imperial County. The curriculum team at Imperial County Office of Education, is committed to integrating the arts at every opportunity. Arts integrations strategies was the focus of our work with Dr. Merryl Goldberg and has influence innovative integration with our ELD, NGSS, CTE, and Math specialists. 

As a result of your implementation what practices are making an impact?

The strategic plan has given clear and manageable direction to the Imperial County Office of Education (ICOE) about how we can support arts education. Given that there is a less-than-part-time coordinator on staff, the plan has helped are articulate how other branches of ICOE could collaborate with the curriculum department to celebrate and promote the arts. This internal clarification and collaboration allowed ICOE and the ICOE Foundation to establish and inaugural event showcasing students and their various talents, while engaging a community of Arts Lovers.

What have you seen change in your county as a result of this implementation support?

The change is slight but a change none-the-less. Leaders in our county know they have a lead contact at the COE that is responsible for advancing the Arts. There is little to no capacity left at the end of the day for engaging professional development right now, we believe a high-demand will emerge as the virus subsides.

What Lessons Are You Learning Through the Implementation of Your Plan?

  • Content: Teaching and Learning in and through the Arts / Professional Development
    We have learned how powerful strategies used in the arts are for content area learning and language development. Distance learning taught us that various types of art provide unparalleled access to rich, academic content. Substantial motivation, depth of knowledge, and evidence of learning can be achieved by incorporating the arts. Even though our events had low attendance in 2021, it was an opportunity to build capacity for our coordinator and for our curriculum team.
  • Infrastructure: Teaching Staff/ Facilities/ Resources
    We have learned that meaningful arts instruction need not be elaborate or expensive. Everything we learned with Dr. Merryl and with other presenters who have joined us, can be done with basic supplies.
  • Collaborations/Partnerships: Networks/Cross-County Collaboration(s); Interdisciplinary programs/efforts
    Imperial Counties art program could not survive without the guidance, resources, and support offer to us by our regional and statewide partners. We are learning that all we need to do is ask for help and a whole network of support

Value Statement: How Has This Been Valuable for Your County?

What have you seen as the value of arts strategic planning in your county? – This work has given clear and manageable direction to the Imperial County Office of Education (ICOE) about how we can support arts education. Given that there is a less-than-part-time coordinator on staff, the facilitation of the process clarified the purview of the county office and that of the districts. The opportunity to bring together multiple perspectives from inside and outside of the educational community was an extremely valuable experience. Educators were able to voice their successes and struggles, giving community members a new perspective about the system. Community members were able to share their experiences, hopes, and wishes for the future of Imperial County and offer their support as allies to the educators. Wrapping all of that up into statements of action was a valuable exercise to focus the energy of individuals to work collectively and develop guidance to prioritize the work for ICOE.

Re-engaging with the arts community has empowered our Curriculum Team to reap the benefits of SEL through what we have learned through Arts Education and pass it on to our clients through our high-quality professional development. Growing our own capacity for arts literacy has allows us to impact our community of educators exponentially. Carrying on with items from the strategic plan in the face of adversity has been of great value.

Being able to articulate a vision for Arts Education for our rural county has been incredibly valuable. Sharing our strategic plan with the board and foundation members birthed the idea for the showcasing student art. Speaking our need has rallied the community support students and the arts. The community’s outpouring for a student-centered event was encouraging. A new signature event has been created as a result of unifying our organizations’ vision for Arts education.


ICOE wants to provide some way to encourage the arts so that every child can have a rich arts education. We’re promoting and encouraging people to think about the importance of art in education. We’re really trying to turn everyone in here into an ambassador for arts education.
-Dr. Todd Finnell, Superintendent at ICOE, when speaking about the goal of Autumn in the Arts

The arts are complementary to every academic subject in our school systems. The arts allow students to express themselves in creative ways while learning more about themselves! Participating on this committee introduced me to the challenges our teachers are facing when trying to include the arts in daily curriculum. I am passionate about the arts, especially for our youth. It is my hope that participating on this committee with other arts community members, will lead to an action plan for implementation.
– Ann Irygoin, Community Committee Member and ICOE Foundation Board Member 

Dr. Goldberg was amazing. She put me in touch with her colleague and she is going to show help me with my action research project; I’m going to try podcasting with my first graders! The small group that came together with Dr. Merryl was awesome. We became really bonded because the art made us open to share. We witnessed healing happen right in front of our eyes. I am so glad I make time to come.
– Ana Jorgenson, 1st grade Dual-Language Teacher & CRLP Teacher Leader, Project ArCH

I love art and I would do my job for free. I don’t care how much I know; I can always learn more. Working with Dr. Merryl has inspired me. I want to help other teachers do this for their students. I want to help them design lessons!
– Miriam Marcuson, 7th and 8th grade art teacher, Project ArCH Participant, IC Arts Advisory Team

I love art. I’ve been doing it since I was 6 years old, and it’s something I’ve never gotten tired of. It’s just a stress reliever, an escape from everything, and I can paint for hours on end. It’s a hard thing to describe, but it’s something I feel really connected to.
-Bella Rebollar, Brawley Union High senior who participated in Autumn in the Arts.

It’s amazing what a little bit of art instruction can do. All of us were able to be successful and bring our own identity to our art. And I’m so relaxed. I’m doing this with my kids tomorrow!
– Sandra Terán, 1st grade teacher and CRLP Teacher Leader, after We are Water Protectors session.