Arts Education in Rural Communities

Sonoma County

Name of County: Sonoma County Office of Education
Region: 1
County Superintendent: Amie R. Carter, Sonoma Superintendent of Schools
Cohort Lead: Karen McGahey

Sonoma County lies south of Humboldt, north of Marin, and to the west of Napa counties. Measuring 1.5 million square miles, the county offers redwoods, vineyards, and a rugged ocean coast that makes for diverse experiences and activities. In California’s Wine Country region, Sonoma County is the largest producer of wine. More than 8.4 million tourists visit each year, making tourism a significant industry.

With a population of almost 500,000, racial demographics include:¬† White 86%, Latinx 27%, Asian 5%, Black 2%, and Native American 1%. Over ‚Öď of residents have earned a Bachelor‚Äôs Degree.

Sonoma County divides into 40 school districts, serving 66,500 students. This includes 103 elementary schools, 26 middle/junior high schools, 19 high schools, 14 alternative schools, and 5 independent study schools. Demographics of students enrolled are: Latinx 47%, White 40%, Asian, 4%, Black 1%, and Native American .08%. The county’s schools vary widely in size from the Santa Rosa School District with 16,000 students to Kashia in the west part of the county with 12 students. 37% of graduates complete A-G requirements for admission to UC/CSU systems.

Unique Characteristics

Sonoma County has been plagued with wildfires, flooding, and power shutoffs since 2017. These disasters have impacted students, from losing their homes to the fires or floods or combining households to help family and friends left homeless. Power shutoffs affect the number of school days and instructional hours. County Superintendent Steven Herrington testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on early childhood, elementary, and secondary Education in June 2019. The hearing titled, ‚ÄúThis is Not a Drill: Education-Related Response and Recovery in the Wake of Natural Disasters,‚ÄĚ was an opportunity to share insight and lessons learned from the 2017 Tubbs Fire. Dr. Herrington expressed concern about long-term emotional stress for students and teachers.

Key Strategic Goals of County Strategic Arts Plan  

  • Provide a variety of creative content and standards-based VAPA curriculum for all students.
  • Utilize social emotional and trauma-informed practices through arts to create a safe and nurturing environment.
  • Promote and support an inspiring, inclusive arts integration approach.
  • Effectively prepare teachers through engaging professional development.
  • Strategic, coordinated collaboration at all levels of the school and district ecosystem is prioritized.
  • Engage districts in a strategic planning process to ensure arts are equitably provided.
  • Build and develop a dynamic and connected arts education community for students that includes schools and districts, parents, family members, artists, teaching artists, and arts organizations.¬†
  • Invite an engaged, diverse representation from all areas of the county that reflects our student population to share our vision for equity.
  • Measure, track, and celebrate progress of key priorities over time.
  • Access Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) resources to support arts education in districts.

Highlights And Strategic Directions Taken in The Implementation Of Strategic Arts Plan

Stated Implementation Strategies:
to support implementation of the Sonoma County Arts Education Framework, a new and energized Sonoma County Arts Education Alliance (AEA) has sprung into action. The AEA is organized into committees to advance the Framework by creating a:

  • Governance structure for the AEA to oversee the broad agenda and actions with a focus on equity including assessing opportunities, challenges, and actions
  • Series of School/District Administrator Meetups to develop key partnerships
  • Leadership Development cohort for community advocates, trained in critical areas of arts education advocacy
  • Cohort for Education Leaders from Arts Organizations that meets monthly to share strategies and network
  • Parent Ambassadors for Arts campaign organizing and empowering parents to participate in arts advocacy at the school and district level

Highlighted Accomplishments

As a result of the Administrator Meetups, the Arts Education Alliance developed new partnerships and rekindled stagnant relationships with 23 districts in the county. This professional development and networking for administrators included areas such as Social Emotional Learning strategies and arts integration lessons. The meetups focused on the successes of those districts that have created their own district strategic arts plan from a template of the county’s Arts Education Framework.

The Leadership Development cohort trained 28 community advocates in arts integration, arts standards, assessment, LCFF, and other key critical factors to understand. The graduates of this program wrote goals to support the AEA and continue their learning and advocacy efforts. A regional group from this cohort has established their own community coalition, Creative Bridges. This coalition is now a model for other communities.

Parent Ambassadors for the Arts meetings were held in English and Spanish and welcomed over 54 parents to learn more about the opportunity available through arts education. Parents created their own elevator pitch and plan for how to use that pitch in engaging with their school community.

What have you seen as the greatest advances as a result of implementing your strategic plan?
Results from implementation of the strategic plan include having tangible examples of success to encourage more districts to adopt and create their own version that best suits their needs. Concrete examples of this work provide a model of ‚Äúwhat is looks like.‚ÄĚ

As a result of your implementation what practices are making an impact?
Individuals are committing to advocate for this cause. Creating subcommittees of folks interested in specific causes allows each to advocate for areas important to them-arts curriculum, culture and arts, funding for arts, etc. Accountability for equity of opportunity centers the work and is a part of our practice, even written into agendas.

What have you seen change in your county as a result of this implementation support?
There is a renewed commitment to working together to find ways to bring arts education to  students everywhere. A fresh and/or renewed interest in arts education advocacy has our community asking questions of leaders and governing boards about access and equity.

What Lessons Are You Learning Through The Implementation Of Your Plan?

Content ‚Äď Teaching and Learning in and through the Arts / Professional Development
Having worked with 4 districts and 3 individual school sites to assist them with adapting the Sonoma County Arts Education Template to meet their individual needs, all of them have done professional development in arts integration with their staffs, including administrators.¬† Most of them have done professional development with their staffs focused on arts integration and SEL.¬†Many of them are currently participating in Windsor USD‚Äôs iApsire Teaching and Learning Network on Arts Integration.¬†There has been a focus on ongoing professional learning as there is a universal understanding that arts integration is not a ‚Äúone and done‚ÄĚ in terms of building capacity for educators.

Infrastructure: Teaching Staff/ Facilities/ Resources
This is an area in which we have many variables from district to district and site to site.  Some schools have special rooms set aside for ceramics and music while others make do in makeshift spaces.  Some schools have certificated teachers in the arts, but in elementary schools those are largely music teachers.  Certificated teachers in dance are rare.  In terms of resources, those vary from district to district and site to site as well.  In assisting these schools and districts with their plans, we always discuss legitimate ways to set aside funds in the LCAP, including Titles I, III, and IV in support of the arts.  A continual challenge with professional learning is having insufficient opportunities for district level administrators to understand the importance of arts education to increase access and opportunity for arts education at all levels. Often designation of how funding is used, resides at the district level, and this may limit sites’ resources for the arts.

Collaborations/Partnerships/Networks/Cross-County Collaboration(s); Interdisciplinary Programs
We have a great many opportunities for schools and districts to network and collaborate, but there are many more that we could encourage and develop. Sonoma County is rich with Arts Organizations, many of which meet monthly to delineate the ways in which they can be active in our schools.  We need to do a better job of connecting these schools and districts with arts organizations so they can invite them in to work with their students.  We do see arts educators reaching out to colleagues in other districts, but we need to do a better job of connecting them.  One of the problems is that so few of our districts have arts TOSAS or VAPA Coordinators, who are typically the ones who might reach out to colleagues in other districts.  In terms of cross-county collaboration, we have a representative from SCOE that participates in all CCSESA and CISC meetings who brings the work of other county offices back to the Arts Education Alliance and provides people with contact information if they wish to reach out to another county.  In terms of interdisciplinary programs/efforts, there is a great deal of variability from district to district and site to site.  At the secondary level we are trying to encourage educators to learn from their colleagues in CTE, who have been doing cross disciplinary work for years, including arts integration. We are much more likely to see the arts integrated into key content areas in elementary schools rather than secondary schools.

Sustainability: Funding/ Program Evaluation/Effective Use of Data /Community Involvement/ Advocacy
While sustainability elements vary in those schools and districts with which we have worked, we do see growing commitment to use of Title I, III, and IV funds as well as an effort to write the arts into LCAPS.  We need to continue to provide schools and districts with the kind of language that will assist them to position the funding for the arts in their LCAPS. In terms of effective program evaluation and use of data, we are in the beginning stages of seeing this grow.  As we begin to see more schools and districts have TOSAS and VAPA Coordinators, this will increase.  The person with the greatest responsibility for oversight of a program is the most likely leader to promote effective program evaluation and use of data to continue to improve instruction. Through the Arts Education Alliance, we have a subcommittee devoted to Arts Advocacy and a group of 50+ parents, both Spanish- and English-speaking, who participated in Arts Advocacy Seminars.  We plan to continue to grow that work.

Adoption of The Declaration of the Rights of All Students to Equity in Arts Learning and/or other policies:
In the schools and districts with which we have worked, all of them have recommended that their boards and/or site councils adopt The Declaration of Student Rights to Equity in Arts Learning but we have not confirmed that they have done so.

Technology to Support Arts Learning
Technology capacity varies from district to district and site to site.¬†Most of our schools and districts equip their students with 1-1 devices, but as to whether they use these¬†devices to integrate the arts is unknown.¬† As most counties, Sonoma County has a great deal of disparity among schools and districts in funding sources for technology.¬† There are definite ‚Äúhaves‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúhave nots,‚ÄĚ especially considering that we have 19 largely rural one-school districts.¬† This year we received a grant through CCSESA to work with rural districts and we were able to work with Guerneville School District and Horicon School District to develop strategic arts education plans and are reaching out to all of our schools and districts to determine what they need to continue on the path to full implementation of their plans.

Snapshots Of Arts Learning in Sonoma County

First row: Students from Horicon Elementary (K-8) in Annapolis, CA engaging in arts learning.
Second row: Student artwork from Guerneville Elementary (K-8) in Guerneville, CA.

Value Statements ‚Äď How Has This Been Valuable for Your County?

This plan has been valuable for our county because it has provided a focus that guides our work. Our Framework provides a place to start with each district. Our commitment to partnership is demonstrated as each district’s strategic plan is created-to use their resources, address their priorities, and find ways to partner and support them. Our Arts Education Framework is an agreement with our advocates about why arts education matters, what success looks like, and what direction we will grow. As districts implement their plans, our Arts Education Alliance has sought to learn and support those needs.


The students, teachers, administration, parents, and trustees of Horicon Elementary firmly believe that the arts are not only a beneficial factor in increasing participation in school as well as improved attendance but also a worthy pursuit to boost self-confidence.  We have supported the incorporation of Art into the regular curriculum as a means of engaging students in a manner that is highly captivating. At all levels of our school, we attempt to find multiple ways to incorporate more art into lessons and are appreciative of the county office for recognizing this importance, particularly as we are attempting to re-engage families after the return to on-campus learning in 2021.
– Jeff McFarland/Superintendent-Principal/Horicon School District

The 6-8 (grade) AVID Enrichment class is focusing on living our school mission, so we took a September walking field trip to our local senior center. SCHOOL MISSION FOCUS: ‚ÄúLocal to Global Leadership and Sustainability‚ÄĚ Students developed open-ended inquiry questions, and then interviewed senior members of our community about everything from their favorite memories of childhood and career and college experiences, to their first loves and flood memories. It was a great community bonding experience as seniors and youth came together to share stories about family struggles, life in Guerneville, river adventures,¬† loves, and life lessons. The art pieces represent a community member that was interviewed by our AVID students.¬†
– Dana Pedersen/Superintendent/Principal Guerneville School District