School Events and Advocacy

Thu, 03/01/2012 (All day)
Advocacy Team (if applicable): 

Stairway to the StarsAny school event—especially those that involve parents, students and teachers—provides opportunities to build public will to maintain arts education within public schools. 

In Santa Monica-Malibu USD, for example, the annual Stairway of the Stars event has become an invaluable reminder of the power of the district’s renowned music education programs. 

Many in the district credit the event, and the overwhelming support and recognition it stimulates, with Santa Monica-Malibu USD’s continued investment in quality, sequential music education.  Over half of SMMUSD’s 11,500 students participate in the music program, including all students from 3rd – 5th grades, and the program has remained intact through the budget crises of recent years.

District Arts Coordinator Tom Whaley sees Stairway as integral to maintaining the arts program and encourages other districts to hold a similar public event and involve district leadership.  Although Stairway is a well-established, funded event, Whaley says starting small—or adding onto an existing event—can accomplish the same goals.  "Where there’s a will, there’s a way," says Whaley.  "The main thing is, try it.  Feature one of your teachers, or one of the school music groups.  It’s a great way to involve parents, too.  We always have a reception after the performance that’s coordinated by our parent volunteers."

Stairway to the StarsThe Arts Education department engages SMMUSD’s School Board and Superintendent in each Stairway performance.  District leadership appreciates the chance to connect with a large group of parents and other community stakeholders, and takes the opportunity to speak publicly on the accomplishments of music students and the importance of the program.  

An arts education event also provides an emotional connection for parents.  After the Stairway concert, "People come out in tears.  They’re so proud of the opportunity our kids have," says Whaley.  "It’s an annual reminder of how good the program is and how we can’t sacrifice this level of quality."  In recent years, the Arts Education department has added a giant video screen with a live feed of students’ faces throughout the performance, and now provides parents with DVDs of the show. 

The district's success in engaging local stakeholders is evident in its ability to generate local funding to augment state education budgets.  The City of Santa Monica's "Joint Use Agreement" with SMMUSD provides roughly $8 million per year, and the City of Malibu's "Joint Use Agreement" provides roughly $140,000.  Measure R, a local Parcel Tax, provides $10 million in additional funding from Santa Monica and Malibu every year. 

Santa Monica was also the first community in California to pass a "transaction and use tax" on purchases made in the city that helps to fund the local school district.  These measures, Y & YY, generate roughly $5.5 million for SMMUSD.  While SMMUSD has experienced major cuts in the wake of the economic crisis, community support of arts education has allowed the district to continue providing a high level of instruction for all public school students.

Although Stairway now receives significant funding from the district, it started as a much smaller event in 1954.   Today, the event costs the district $35,000, which it recoups through $15 ticket sales over two nights of packed crowds at the City of Santa Monica’s Civic Auditorium, which seats 1,200 audience members.  A remarkable 900 music students, ranging in age from elementary to HS and in choirs, bands, orchestras and jazz bands, sit on the auditorium stage, taking turns playing in various combinations. 

The City allows SMMUSD to use the Civic Auditorium at no charge.  The cost of the event comes from providing parking, security, transportation of students to and from the auditorium for rehearsals, and compensation for teachers and substitutes.  The popularity of the event (both nights always sell out) allows SMMUSD to invest a large sum, keep ticket prices low and still break even.

Stairway to the StarsIn addition to being a memorable experience for young musicians, Stairway connects music teachers from many local schools and grade levels, providing opportunities for peer mentorship.  It also connects elementary and middle school students to high school music directors and musicians, encouraging them to continue with the program.  According to Whaley, "It’s a great feeder system.  Younger students are excited to meet the high school teachers and look up to the older student musicians."

The district developed a semi-independent committee and official Stairway Charter designed to preserve the integrity of the event.  For example, the Charter sets guidelines for the Stairway Award, presented annually to a person who has made a significant contribution to SMMUSD music education.  The Charter ensures that Stairway Award recipients must be voted on by the music teachers instead of, for example, appointed by Whaley or another district leader.  This open process has led to community arts education advocates receiving the award, even if they have been critical of district-level policies or proposed cuts to the music education program. 

Each year features a guest conductor, such as a legendary orchestrator, college orchestra conductor or composer for the motion picture industry.  Past artists include legendary San Diego music educator Tom Cole, cinema orchestrator Pete Anthony and Lawrence Stoffel, director of bands at CalState Northridge.

Guest conductors provide inspiration for students and teachers, and emphasize the possibilities of a successful career in music.  They also encourage attendees to voice support for the music education program at SMMUSD.  Stoffel told the audience, "It’s your job to get what you have into every other district.  You have to share this model of excellence because other students deserve it too.  We should have this in every school district across the United States."

Although Stairway has become a major community event, even a small after-school event provides opportunities to increase support for arts education.  Creating opportunities for district leadership to speak to the value of the arts, engaging parents in the arts education process and allowing students to shine will build public will to continue supporting these essential programs.

To learn more about increasing support for arts education within your community, please visit our Arts Education and Resources sections.  You can also contact Arts for LA for tips and information at (213)-225-7580 or [email protected].

This year’s Stairway concert will be held March 22nd & 23rd.  For more information and to download their Stairway Charter, please click here.

 Stairway to the Starts


Photos from the 2011 Stairway concert by D'Lynn Waldron. Used by permission from SMMUSD.