On a recent Friday, a group of tenth graders from Oakland High School prepare to start their weekend with a field trip to the Oakland Museum of California. A mob of loud and animated students cram into a bus. When we reach our destination, the pupils rush off the bus and dash up the steps to the museum.
We tour the exhibit that celebrates Dia de Los Muertos and then find ourselves exploring a show about 1968, a tumultuous year in American history. Some of the artwork resonates with students and makes them think about their own community; one of the students sees a Brett Cook piece about Little Bobby Hutton and the accompanying quote: “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.”
Bobby Hutton was killed by Oakland police at the age of 18. He was one of the first members of the Black Panther Party and this altar is dedicated to him. The student remarked that the piece “shows how the community can work together and put a beautiful art piece like this together.”
Another student, Ashley Gaines, was impressed by the stories in the 1968 exhibit “because it has a lot of places where I can learn more and experience what they were going through.”
This field trip provides an example of an alternative way of educating students.
“Students are able to learn through other modes, in art class,” says Daniel Spinka, co-director of Oakland High School’s Visual Arts & Academic Magnet Program, or VAAMP. “The kids need an outlet – a visual outlet or a hands-on outlet – that’s kind of where I come from as a teacher.”
Spinka wants to make students feel self-worth and capable of success. “I want my kids to walk away knowing they can succeed, knowing that even if they’re that kid that dropped out or even if they had a low GPA or whatever it might be, that they have the tools to succeed,” he says.
The students call themselves “VAAMPERS”. Jesenia Garcia is one of them.
“It’s a really good academy because you really get to express your feelings in art and even if you can’t draw, like I can’t really draw, they’re not going to be like, ‘Oh, you can’t draw get out of VAAMP.’ That’s why you’re there to learn,” she says.
“I struggled a lot at home, so I started putting myself into artwork, and I really enjoy painting, so I got really focused into that,” says another VAAMPER, Carifer Rodriguez
Despite the passion art fuels, teacher Spinka says funding is in short supply.
“Our department hasn’t received any funds for supplies in over three years and that’s hard,” says Spinka. “You can only scrape up as much as possible before you have your basic needs that need to be met. So you know, it definitely gets challenging.”
You can see some of those challenges on this field trip. There were no big yellow buses waiting to drive us to the museum today. Instead, the students, instructors, and I had to walk down the block to the AC Transit stop and get on the number 18 bus.
Art programs are being cut across California and they are often the first thing to go when budgets get tight, but by talking to students and listening to teachers, this cultured curriculum clearly has a powerful impact on these teens. Despite the cuts, creative teachers like Daniel Spinka will continue to find ways to give kids an art education.
Alexandra Shepperd is a student reporter at Mills College in Oakland.