In the streets of the Industrial District in Downtown Los Angeles, there are dirty, abandoned buildings, graffiti-covered walls and an unidentifiable stench.
There is a makeshift auto mechanic’s garage in the midst of this atmosphere that has been transformed into a creative learning center for inner-city kids. Just blocks away from Skid Row on Central Avenue, once inside its gates, it appears as though it has been untouched by the city’s grime.
A fountain with a child’s handprint sits at the front of the facility and palm trees lead the way to its main building, an oasis where homeless children and those who live in this neighborhood can escape.
This is the Inner City Arts Program.
The idea for the program began with a spiritual vision, its founder Bob Bates said. “A voice spoke to me while I was meditating,” Bates said.
The voice, he said, told him to create a place where children could be creative through the arts.
Bates, a 66-year-old Kansas City native, grew up in the suburbs. He started the program in the 1970’s when arts instruction was eliminated from Los Angeles public schools.
With financial help from businessman Irwin Jaeger, they established the center in downtown Los Angeles on Olympic Boulevard.
Bates said he has dedicated his life to this program. When asked about the state of arts education in the Los Angeles Public School system, he said, “It’s pretty dismal. We’ve lost a sense of discipline for the arts.”
Inner City Arts provides children from 21 local elementary schools with animation, visual arts, music, dance, drama, ceramics and animation classes. They estimate that they serve almost 8,000 children every year.
The program receives funding through donations, and all of the classes are free to children.
With the help of a study conducted by the UCLA department of the Evaluation and Research Department, Inner City Arts found that they are improving formal education in Los Angeles classrooms through their arts programming.
In standardized test scores, there was an 8 percent increase in English, 25 percent increase in math and an 18 percent increase in reading, for students who participated in the program for a year.
But, in 2004, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger eliminated $1 million in legislative funding for local grants form the California Arts Council Budget, and a $6 million Arts Work Program from the California Department of Education, according to the California Alliance for Arts Education.
Gov. Schwarzenegger’s explanation for this cut was : “During this time of fiscal difficulties, these funds should be spent for educational priorities agreed to with education leaders to provide more flexible funding so local schools can fund their most important needs,” according to the California Alliance for Arts Education.
Bates said it is perceptions of arts education such as this that is depriving children of the opportunity to be creative, a skill that helps them be better students.
People don’t understand the value of arts education, Bates said. “I’ve seen it change lives and transform people. Art is a healing activity.”
Bates said he has seen kids come into the program and leave better students, and it has also helped some of them get through difficult times in their lives.
One of those children, Bates said, was a young man who had watched his father shoot himself and commit suicide.
“We didn’t ask him about it. We just kept giving him art assignments. I think it helped him in the end,” Bates said.
Beth Tischler, a spokesperson for the program, said Inner City Arts is the only school in the nation where children can participate during the school day. Students come to the facilities twice a day for seven to ten weeks.
“All of the schools are about a five to seven mile radius away from the program,” Tischler said.
Over 90 percent of the students are Latino and most of them speak English as a second language. Tischler said as a result, they often struggle to learn basic skills in school.
As a result, many of the students have used what they’ve learned in the program to increase their proficiency in math, science and reading, Tischler said.
For example, Tischler said, a young girl who took a painting class was having a difficult time with math in school. She mixed red and white paint together and made pink paint, and suddenly addition, which had been confusing to her, clicked.
“She said ‘one red plus one white equals pink. This is math!’ Tischler said.
In addition to several arts rooms inside the facility, there is a mirrorless dance studio which Tischler said was left without mirrors so students aren’t concerned with what they looked like when they’re dancing or if they are getting the steps right. She said their dance classes are more about letting the students express themselves.
“It’s about putting stories into movements,” Tischler said.
Inner City Arts has a staff over 20 and a $1.5 million annual budget. They have a $10 million expansion of the facility in the works, which will span over 40,000 square feet and allow them to double the amount of children they serve.
There will be a new theater center, an expansion of the Ceramics Studio, a library and conference center, a children’s community garden, a grand courtyard and a reception and administrative center.
Alyson Iwamoto has been a ceramics instructor at Inner City Arts for four years. She studied ceramics at Long Beach State University before becoming a teacher for the program.
“I’ve learned so much from these children, about the area and the community,” Iwamoto said.
Some of her students attend Central City Elementary School where 95 percent of the children are homeless and they only have a book bag and a cubby to their name, Iwamoto said.
But, when they come to Inner City Arts, they can forget about the things they don’t have and focus on what they will achieve.
“They are excited about learning. They want to be incredible,” Iwamoto said.
Inner City Arts estimates that at least one-third of the children they serve are homeless and the majority live within walking distance of the facility.
All of those children participate in free or reduced lunch programs. To qualify for that program, a single parent with one child must earn less than $12,830 a year.
Iwamoto said the ceramics that her students make serve as self-portraits, and that often, when they make ceramics of themselves, they have wings or some other type of super feature.
She talked about one day when all of the students were asked to build houses from clay. She said one student said “I’m making a broken home.”
She said she helped him make the broken home that he built whole again.
Iwamoto said many people have asked her what her dream job would be if she could have it. “I told them it would be to work with the community, to help people and to do art.” Iwamoto looked around the ceramics studio, full of children’s artistic creations, and said, “This is it.”