Making a Difference

Proposition 13 was barely four years old in 1982, but schools were already feeling the financial pinch of the notorious property-tax-cutting initiative. Anything beyond the basics, including arts education, was in jeopardy. Traditional money-raising tactics like PTA bake sales couldn’t suffice: the funding gap was too wide for cookies and cupcakes to fill.

In Mill Valley, two mothers with PTA and arts-funding know-how formed an organization they saw as a stopgap solution to help keep school arts programs alive. Twenty-five years later, that nonprofit, now known as Kiddo!, is one of Marin’s most successful school funding foundations.

Each year more than 70 percent of Mill Valley School District parents contribute to Kiddo! (as do substantial numbers of people without school-age children), and the organization has raised $14 million since it began.

“When we started our goal was to be out of business in five years,” says Trisha Garlock, Kiddo!’s executive director and cofounder (with neighbor Penny Weiss). “Every year, we realize we’re needed more and more.”

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine Mill Valley’s schools without Kiddo!, which pays for all the art, music, drama, dance and poetry programs in the K-8 district. Because of Kiddo!, students can discover their inner artist through classes in drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, ceramics, crafts and photography.

They learn the five elements of music— pitch, rhythm, expression, form and texture —in voice and instrument classes. Chorus, orchestra, band and jazz band provide performance opportunities.

Art is important for art’s sake, but it is also
important to other areas of learning. It really is
part of a well-rounded education.”  Trisha Garlock

Kindergartners learn about movement and other cultures through “Dances Near and Far” and “American Traditions” programs. Fifth-graders learn about U.S. dance history—and history in general—in “Dance through the Decades,” which embraces everything from the Charleston to disco.

Kiddo!’s drama classes include projects like a seventh-grade production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In grades one, three, four and five, professional poets teach students not only to appreciate poetry, but also to express themselves through it.

“Art is important for art’s sake, but it is also important to other areas of learning,” says Garlock. “It really is part of a well-rounded education.”

Indeed, numerous studies show studying the arts helps students do better in all subjects. Their language skills improve, their test scores are higher and their self-esteem rises. Arts education also teaches students how to think critically and how to creatively solve problems.

Jackie La Lanne, who coordinates the district’s art classes, easily recalls specific students whose academic lives were transformed because they became passionate about an art form. There was the elementary school boy, for example, who didn’t enjoy going to school until he was given a digital camera. He returned to class with incredible images, La Lanne says, and was so excited about the pictures and the recognition he received that his attitude toward school in general improved dramatically.

“A lot of the teachers come into art [classes] with the kids and notice that some of the kids who don’t have success in their classes excel in here,” La Lanne says. “They’re very focused where they’re not very focused in other classes.”

As successful as it is, Kiddo! does have its challenges. Among them is the need to continually communicate to new parents the importance of the arts and of Kiddo! as a means for arts education to survive. Thankfully, Garlock says, most parents quickly understand the value of both the moment they visit an arts class and see the joy on students’ faces.

With district enrollment (about 2,300) gradually increasing, Kiddo! now seeks to provide more arts programs, which requires more fundraising. This coming school year, Kiddo! will pay for $1.4 million of the district’s arts and technology programs.

Annual donations meet about 90 percent of that amount, with the rest coming from the organization’s endowment. The long-term goal is make the endowment substantial enough to underwrite the arts programs in perpetuity. That shift, says Garlock, would guarantee arts education for generations of Mill Valley children to come.

Money aside, Kiddo!’s legacy is carried forward by the more than 10,000 students whose lives it has influenced. Some have become artists; many others have benefited from the overall intangible enrichment that arts programs help provide.

“The fact that these programs have grown and thrived and made such a difference in children’s lives, that’s our biggest success,” Garlock says.