Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District: Planning and Replanning

Tom Whaley
Visual and Performing Arts Coordinator
Santa Monica-Malibu USD


Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) was part of the first cohort of districts to join Arts for All in 2003-04. When we gathered a Community Arts Team to determine the direction of our arts plan, the team quickly recognized that building sustainable arts education could not be accomplished by simply hiring more teachers. We created a nine year plan that included nine focus areas: standards-based curriculum, instruction and methodology, student assessment, professional development, partnerships and collaborations, program administration and personnel, funding, resources and facilities, and program evaluation.

For more than a decade we have worked and reworked strategies for implementing our plan and have seen amazing growth in arts education across the district.


As I talk with other districts about the challenges we face in moving our work forward, I see three barriers that many of us have in common: a lack of time, space and money. Through reflection, and trial and error, SMMUSD has developed a few helpful strategies that we share with other districts to adapt to the needs of their communities.

For example, we faced some challenges in finding the resources to offer dance instruction for our students. Our solution: include dance as part of the required physical education time. This decision eliminated the need to alter the master schedule or pay for additional staff time, and since physical education is required, this shift allowed all students to have equal access to one of the least taught arts disciplines in the County.

We were also challenged to find the physical space needed for visual arts instruction. One way we worked around this was to use every open space possible, including libraries and cafeterias. But our most resourceful solution came from ending the practice of pulling elementary students out of class to take music lessons. First of all, this was causing students to sacrifice valuable instructional time in order to access the arts. Secondly, most of the students taking advantage of the music program were from more affluent families who could afford to pay for their instruments. Thanks to grant funding and support from our district leadership, we were able to expand our elementary music program and offer a full period of music instruction to all students, taught by a dedicated music teacher. The unintended consequence was that while students spent time in music class, their classrooms were empty and available for other arts instruction. In addition to gaining space, teachers also benefited by having another period of prep time and administrators had more time for professional development. Buy-in from administrators, teachers, and parents at the elementary school level ended up creating a demand for improving sequential arts learning at the middle and high schools as well.

One of the biggest struggles we face as educators is a serious lack of funds. There are grants and other funding resources, but it never seems to be enough. Another solution: most school districts have a local community college, which is a great resource to tap into. I teach jazz band as part of a dual enrollment program at our local community college. The course is funded by the state, so the program comes at no additional cost to our district. College students earn regular course credits for being enrolled in the class, while my high school students receive AP credits for their participation. It’s a huge win for our students!

After so many years of building our arts education program in SMMUSD, I have become pretty good at finding ways to do things differently. I truly believe that if you can imagine it, anything is possible.