Arts Education in Rural Communities

Santa Cruz County

Name of County: Santa Cruz County Office of Education
Region: 5
County Superintendent: Faris Sabbah, Santa Cruz Superintendent of Schools
Cohort Lead: Audrey Sirota, Arts Coordinator, Educational Services Division

Located on the California Central Coast, Santa Cruz County is the second-smallest county in the state by land size and is home to about 276,000 residents. It was first incorporated in 1850, though it was inhabited thousands of years prior by the Awaswas-speaking people whose descendants continue to actively steward the land with traditional practices today.

Unique Characteristics

There is a robust arts community with the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, Pajaro Valley Arts, the Tannery Art Center, the Santa Cruz Symphony with esteemed conductor Daniel Stewart, Open Studios, and the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. On any day of the week, one can find classes, exhibitions, musical performances, theater and dance pieces to attend. Santa Cruz is known for its lovely and spectacular beaches with the accompanying surfers and sailors. It is also known for a plethora of outdoor activities including hiking, biking, skateboarding, and rock climbing. 

The Santa Cruz County Office of Education (COE) serves 10 school districts and approximately 40,000 students. Half of our student population lives in South County that includes the city of Watsonville (Pájaro Valley Unified School District or PVUSD). Primarily agricultural and composed of mostly small businesses, the city supports a large community of migrant farm workers. The percentages vary and the majority of schools have approximately 90% of the student body on free and reduced lunch and are classified as English Learners (EL) or Multilingual Learners.

The other nine districts serve a diversity of students and families. The community is trending towards ever-expanding numbers of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch and EL programs.

Four districts are small school K-6 districts (Small Schools) that serve approximately 110-170 students each. The Small Schools strive to support robust arts and music programs with the support of active parent communities and educational foundations. 

The Santa Cruz COE strives to attain its mission of leading an equitable and innovative learner-centered educational system. We focus on the whole child. This is one of the reasons that the arts are critical to our county. The arts draw upon our histories, cultures, and languages; calling forth diverse perspectives and changing what is taught and how it is taught to promote social and racial justice.

Description of Strategic Arts Planning Process

Key Goals of the Strategic Arts Plan

Santa Cruz County’s Arts Plan is linked closely to our Strategic Plan. We have aligned the Strategic Priorities to match with the Arts Plan viewing the priorities through the lens of the arts.

COE’s Strategic Priority 1:  Safety, Engagement and Social-Emotional Wellness in the Arts

Arts Plan Goal: All students have access to arts education that supports and increases their engagement, connection, and social-emotional development and wellness.

The COE’s role in achieving this goal is to provide customized resources and support to schools and districts implementing one or more arts plan strategies, as the districts/schools see fit for their student and family populations, cultures, and climates.

Santa Cruz COE’s Strategic Priority 2: Academic Achievement and College/Career Readiness

Arts Plan Goal: Every student has access to standards-based programs in the Arts. 

The COE’s role in achieving this goal is to: (a)  “Support on-going standards-based STEAM programs.” (b) Increase CTEP in middle and high school including Media Arts.

Santa Cruz COE’s Strategic Priority 3: Sustainable Systems

Arts Plan Goal: All learners have equitable opportunities to engage in arts education.

The COE’s role  in achieving this goal is to support the districts in building their capacity to sustain an effective and equitable arts education program with fundamental components including but not limited to: ongoing communication and partnership development, identification of fundings resources, and the connection and integration of arts education into the LCAPs.

Strategic Directions Taken in the Implementation Of Strategic Arts Plan

This plan provides a roadmap for increasing equity in arts education for the next five years, which will require ongoing collaboration with partners inside and outside of the Santa Cruz COE to achieve progress. We are committed to taking the following steps, at a minimum, to implement this arts plan in collaboration with our learners, families, districts, schools, arts organizations, cultural groups, businesses, higher education, and other partners:

  • Gather, analyze, and share arts education data with an equity lens on a biennial basis.
  • Review and update the arts plan on a biennial basis.
  • Continuously adapt and improve the COE’s approach to providing customized implementation support to districts and schools in response to community needs.

Strengths and Advances

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

Some of the greatest advances by the Santa Cruz COE have been:

  • An ongoing intentional focus on access and equity in the arts is a shared value of the partners.
  • The development of strong, effective, collaborative partnerships with many partners in the community including districts, arts organizations, artists, and businesses that support the arts.
  • A continued commitment to embrace the diverse voices, ideas, and perspectives that span from North to South County.
  • The diversity and quality of the Santa Cruz COE’s programs for students, professional development for teachers, and support for districts.
  • Strength in effectively integrating social emotional learning with the Arts Standards.
  • Continual service as a central hub to bring teachers and districts together to discuss arts education.
  • Increased student leadership and voice through Youth Artists Taking Action.
  • Ongoing support of District Strategic Arts Plans.
  • Recognition of student art and performance through venues such as the Youth Art Exhibit, Poetry Out Loud, Fashion Teens, the Spanish Poetry Showcase, and Youth Concerts.

Snapshots of Arts Learning in Santa Cruz County

Students engage in ongoing, standards-based music education through programs such as El Sistema Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz Symphony, and the Santa Cruz COE’s Link Up music program.

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

Opportunities to Achieve Greater Impact

  • Examine and implement arts programs that address equity and social and racial justice.
  • Work with the districts to help support their arts education programs.
  • Continue to convene all the Visual and Performing Arts teachers throughout our county at monthly meetings.
  • Work with schools and community partners to bring culturally relevant pedagogical practices to the arts.

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

There is a sustained and intentional focus on the arts in our county. Many students who are now young adults lived through a time when the arts were not available in school. To quote one young adult, “I remember growing up and it seemed like the arts were decimated. There was no music at all, no drawing or painting, no clay pot making, not even any theater in high school. It was a dark time especially for someone like me who needed to move and paint and sketch to learn. It was a dark time.”

The Santa Cruz COE is a staunch advocate for the arts. We value the diversity of our arts community and recognize that each district has distinct needs to support their unique populations. Our experiences with successful local arts programs, research studies, data on the arts, and collaboration with Arts Now Santa Cruz County form the basis of our foundational belief that when students have ongoing, sequential, standards-based arts programs, they show greater progress and success on standardized test scores and social-emotional measures; and higher graduation rates and engagement in civic activities.

This is why the Santa Cruz COE has a long history of supporting the arts community and arts education in various roles:

  • Providing ongoing programming with our districts and schools that includes supporting programs such as the youth music programs El Sistema and Carnegie Hall, as well as Santa Cruz Symphony’s Link Up music education.
  • Offering professional development programs to our district teachers and teaching artists such as the Summer Arts Integration Institute and the Arts Integration Community of Practice.
  • Creating, maintaining, and supporting community and regional partnerships to bring arts education to our districts and schools, including a sustained partnership with Arts Council Santa Cruz County.
  • Supporting student and family engagement, leadership, and voice by facilitating events such as Poetry Out Loud, the Youth Arts Exhibit, and Fashion Teens.
  • Supporting advocacy of the arts by serving as part of the Arts Now Santa Cruz County community.

Peggy Burt working with Jane Real on a professional learning series called Dance & English Learners: Promising Practices

Our community defines arts education in a professional learning workshop.

The Santa Cruz COE is working to strategically preserve and expand sustainable arts education models and to ensure equity in access to arts education for all TK-12 students. We recognize the incredibly salient need to support classroom teachers (TK-12) to learn and apply arts integration learning strategies into their curricula and instructional practices. By training classroom teachers to use effective pedagogies in arts integration, teachers develop a toolkit that includes best practices for arts integration as well as the development of an artistic mindset and behaviors. Ensuring students have access to sustained arts education is a deep value.

Teachers explore the arts during the summer Arts Integration Institute

Value Statements – How Has This Work Been Valuable for Your County?

Receiving the CCSESA Arts funding allowed us to work with arts consultant Peggy Burt. Additionally, it gave us a sustained and focused time to build our plan and this has been a gift of immeasurable proportions. We have had the commitment and the desire to create an Arts Plan for the last several years. The grant allowed us the time and resources to capture the county office of education, district, and partner thinking. It helped us create a 5-year document that will guide us in clarifying, developing and implementing arts education in our community that is tied to our unique cultures, languages, histories, and art forms.

Santa Cruz County Office of Education partners with the Arts Council of Santa Cruz to further arts education opportunities in the county.


Access to Arts Education is an important component of our struggle for equity in our schools. We deeply value the Arts as they play a fundamental role in our efforts to serve the whole child. Arts Education helps our students find their voice and guide their own trajectory towards success.
– Dr. Faris Sabbah, Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools

Quotes from Teachers and Artists from the  Summer Art Integration Institute:

This week really reinforced and reinvigorated my love for all art forms as the most powerful tool we can use to  engage our students and communities. I realized that I can/should work to be more multidisciplinary in the class,  and really bring more focus on FUN and EXPLORATION into my class.
–2021 participant

What I am really grateful for is discovering my attachment to the final product and practicing “Honor the process  over the product” this week has been very freeing. As well as creating an imaginary friend that helps me in my time  of need was so healing on such a deep level. Every day, if not every activity was such a wonderful contribution to me  personally in a very profound way. In the beginning, I had a tough time because I had my teacher hat on, which  during this last year had become VERY serious. Being invited to approach your activities from the perspective of a  child and be the student really allowed me to see things differently. The childlike wonder has been revitalized, and I  am excited to bring this energy to my lesson planning and share it with my students as we integrate music and art  into learning.
– 2021 participant

The horizons have been broadened and I am excited to set sail. Being a music teacher, I always do my best to  incorporate themes from the classroom into my music room. I have learned many different ways to do that this  week. I have been a strong advocate for SEL at my school, and feel that the arts are such a wonderful vehicle for  healing.
– 2021 participant

I think art is the great place for people to express themselves politically, socially, culturally and individually.”
– Michelle Stewart, Happy Valley Elementary Superintendent

​​This week I was able to connect and remember that through experiencing the joys and pleasures of art ourselves, we will be better at sharing and transferring that joy to our students in a more meaningful and authentic way. I was also reminded to respect all learning differences, give more choice, and opportunity, and praise more on the effort and participation.
– Rebekah Freels, PVUSD VAPA teacher

Quotes from Alternative Education Students:

Art definitely changes how people look at the world — how I look at the world and my friends look at everything.
– Jonathan C.

I better understand the thoughts and feelings behind paintings, and can appreciate them better now. I never had any art and it really makes a difference to the world.”
– Forrest P.

I definitely use art and music to help myself with stress. I like ceramics and painting a lot. I like how it connects to what we are studying in history.
– Kyla

It’s nice to learn about something I am really interested in during school hours. I have taught other people what he has taught me.
– Devon

Quotes about the Arts Plan:

I Love the clearly defined strengths, areas for improvement, and opportunities for greatest impact. I Love the clarity of the three key strategic goals. I also love the examples broken down by content, infrastructure, and sustainability.

The Santa Cruz COE Arts Plan is a critical plan for Youth Empowerment & Voice. We are looking at supporting the next generation of artists and educators. We need to get arts infused and integrated widely and deeply. If we follow this, we can do it.

I appreciate that the Arts Plan begins where we are and leaves room for each individual district to make their own – as we know each district has its own set of needs, resources, and priorities.