Pasadena Unified School District’s ‘My Masterpieces’

Arts education has been threatened in recent years by budget cuts and teacher furloughs.  Museum education departments are reimagining their roles in public education and are creating new programming to fill the gaps.  At the 2011 CAM Conference presenters in Session 3A “Strategies for Collaboration: My Masterpieces and Pasadena Unified School District” shared the challenges and unprecedented successes of the My Masterpieces curriculum.  This district-wide arts curriculum is a comprehensive arts program designed to formalize partnerships with local arts organizations.

Museum education departments are dedicated to promoting arts education in local school
curricula.  They labor individually to foster programs which serve a greater diversity of schools,
creating inventive teacher programs which seek to propagate arts in the classroom even for
students who lack the opportunity or funding to visit the artwork in a museum setting.  The
threat to arts education however cannot be stemmed without safeguarding the arts as an
integral part of child development at the district level.  Although California Standards for Visual
and Performing Arts were adopted by the Board of Education in 2001, 89 percent of schools
failed to provide a standards-based course for students.
The collaborative My Masterpieces
arts-integrated curriculum exemplifies how arts education, or any at risk subject matter, can be
fostered through the commitment and teamwork of the district and community organizations.
Pasadena Unified School District in collaboration with local arts institutions, through a
combination of fortuitous circumstances and hard work, developed and launched the
unprecedented My Masterpieces: Discovering Art in My Community curriculum.  Jennifer Olson,
an arts education consultant and Senior Author of the curriculum, acted as moderator for a
session titled Strategies for Collaboration: My Masterpieces and Pasadena Unified School District
during the California Association of Museums’ annual conference.  Olson outlined the process
of developing this ambitious program and highlighted the program’s collaborative
underpinnings through Q&A sessions with a Pasadena school teacher, a museum staff member
at The Huntington Library, and a school district administrator.

“Visual and Performing Arts Content Standards.” California Department of Education. Adopted January 2001.
Web. April 19, 2011. Masterpieces
My Masterpieces was a program originally conceived in 2004 when the Pasadena Unified School
District (PUSD), local arts organizations and museums united in an effort to combine their joint
resources to make arts an integral part of the K-12 curriculum of public schools.  This
collaboration of organizations unified under the moniker District Arts Team/Community Arts
Team (DAT/CAT).   At this time, Jennifer Olson was an Educational Assistant at the Norton
Simon Museum.  Like most other art organizations, the Norton Simon had well-established
teacher and student programs in place which served the district.  Although the museum had the
standard programming, Olson recognized that students in the community were not being served
equitably.   Recruitment of participating schools was achieved through word of mouth and a
handful of loyal regulars.  However, many teachers in PUSD never took their students on field
trips, despite Pasadena being home to world class collections with extensive offerings of school
tour programs.  As an initial step, DAT/CAT meetings brought all the arts partners to the table,
a catalyst which opened the discussion of how to broaden and extend the arts organizations
impact on public education.  With a newfound focus on school curriculum, these institutions
were able to move beyond the single-visit model and propose a collaborative venture.  Realizing
that no single site could serve all grade levels, participants came to the conclusion that
collaboration would be mutually beneficial.  DAT/CAT began to think city-wide as well as in line
with the school district.
Meanwhile, PUSD, in accordance with its new status as a Vanguard District, hired Marshall
Ayers as District Arts Coordinator.  Ayers immediately saw the value of drawing on the
resources of local museums in a more structured, comprehensive way.  Amidst this growing
commitment to the arts on the district level, the city of Pasadena was working on a cultural plan
called ‘Nexus’ which sought to foster greater collaboration between the City of Pasadena, PUSD
and arts organizations.  With both the city and the school district on board, Olson had the
institutional support to undertake a yearlong feasibility study.  During this period, Olson
interviewed potential arts partners, museum staff, community arts organizations, teachers,
parents, principals and other PUSD administrators to collect a comprehensive overview of what
would be needed to creative a district-wide arts curriculum.
The feasibility study provided the ideal rough draft for grant applications to get initial funding to
create a practical framework for a program that would best serve all the constituents (teachers,
arts institutions, school administrators and the city).  Olson used the initial funds to write a
preliminary curriculum and build partnerships between teachers and arts organizations.
Teachers attended summer workshops where they went through the lesson step by step and
visited the corresponding arts institutions where they learned techniques for teaching the visual
arts in a gallery space.  During this preliminary period, Ayers and Olson worked directly with the My Masterpieces
school principals to get their feedback on how the lessons were working, using their responses
to reinforce strengths and identify problems.
With the pilot program successfully operating in four PUSD elementary schools, Olson now
undertook the task of getting funding to expand the program to reach twelve schools.  She used
data collected in the pilot program, establishing clear figures on the program’s cost, the
number of students reached and other information which helped with grant writing.  In order to
raise sufficient funds, Olson turned to the Pasadena Educational Foundation, a communitybased non-profit that exists to raise funds that support Pasadena Unified School District. They
fundraise for a number of district programs including summer school, school library
coordinators, and arts programs. They have been a key supporter of My Masterpieces from its
inception, writing grants, securing donations from individuals and continuing to fundraise to
support the program.
The final curriculum was published in 2009 with lessons designed to support field trips to
specific arts institutions.  A basic program design for each grade provides four to six lesson
plans, one or two field trips, professional development sessions, and free return passes.  Each
grade is partnered with one or two local arts organizations and receives standards based
lessons designed to supplement the elementary curriculum with the cultural resources of their
community.  For example fifth graders have lessons based on the Norton Simon Museum. One
fifth grade lesson plan focuses on the theme of work and relies on two paintings by Edgar Degas
and Edouard Manet depicting people at work.  In the lesson the teacher discusses with students
modern day professions and has them write a five-line poem describing the painting.  Each My
Masterpieces lesson includes high quality reproductions of relevant artworks which provide
students with a preview of what to expect and a rudimentary familiarity with the visual arts. The
teacher is given clear guidelines of vocabulary, objectives and procedures as well at the
materials to lead writing and drawing activities.
Olson found in the feasibility study that teachers, with the pressure to cover large quantities of
curriculum, need simple lessons which clearly map out the details and the opportunity to boost
their confidence teaching in arts institutions.  In order to achieve this, PUSD and the arts
partners offer the My Masterpieces Summer Institute where teachers are invited to spend a sixhour session at the museum that corresponds to the grade level that they teach. Teachers listen
to curatorial lectures, explore galleries, and participate in hands-on art-making activities. The
Institute is jointly developed by PUSD and the museum and part of the course, usually the
classroom lessons, is led by a PUSD teacher.  This professional development session is optional
but has attendance of around 100 annually and over half of My Masterpieces teachers have
attended the Summer Institute.My Masterpieces
A fundamental long-term goal of the My Masterpieces curriculum is the enfranchisement of
students.  Olson, Ayers and the museum partners all wanted the program to encourage
students to view these institutions as places of learning but also as spaces which are there for
their continued use.  Developers have sought to achieve this goal through baseline methods as
the program rolls out to all 18 PUSD schools.  Each participating school, currently 16, receives a
Family Pass Binder.  The binder is filled by the institutions, each of which chooses what it wants
to include: three provide a membership card parents can check out from the front desk, three
are free to the public and include their informational materials, and two hand individual passes
to each student on the field trip.  In addition, each parent receives a letter that serves as a field
trip permission slip, notification of the specific free method of access and a request for them to
chaperone.  Some participating institutions, like The Huntington Library, also offer ‘My
Masterpieces Family Days’ on select Saturdays.  Olson anticipates that once all PUSD
elementary schools are enrolled in My Masterpieces additional tools for enfranchisement will be
employed such as student-developed family guides or school-wide weekend family trips.
The goal of the district-community collaboration is to help students develop an appreciation or
passion for the arts, as they will become the next generation of civic leaders, business people,
parents, arts audiences and creative artists. The success of the program and the fast pace in
which it was able to be rolled out in all 18 elementary schools (the pilot was launched in four
schools in 2009) has been resounding. In early 2011, the program received the prestigious
Golden Bell award from the California School Boards Association for exemplary programming.

On the heels of this recognition, Olson and Ayers see great potential for growth, taking the
model and applying it to middle schools with performing arts partners.
As schools face the pressures of teaching students with increasingly depleted funds, some may
ask whether, in the grand scheme of things, arts education is important enough to remain part
of a public education.  The arts however can not only provide alternative learning opportunities
for those students who are left behind by traditional formats but can serve to level economic
disparities.  As Eric Cooper, president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education,
states, “Art education enables those children from a financially challenged background to have
a more level playing field with children who have had those enrichment experiences.”
Masterpieces proves that commitment to arts education is still strong and that when arts
organizations and school administrators team together every student can receive broad and
sustained arts education.

“2010 Golden Bell Award Winners.” California School Boards Association. Web. April 20, 2011.
Smith, Fran.  “Why Arts Education is Crucial, and Who’s Doing it Best.” Edutopia. January 28 2009. Web. April 20,


About projectpatrimonio

Helena Boyden Lamb, born 1985 in New York, has studied and worked in Politics, Heritage Ethics and Politics, and Opera Singing. Most recently, she is working in Brussels where she started in a European Think Tank and is now the Executive Office of a NGO which facilitates Youth Politics across the EU. She has a Bachelor with Honors from Stanford University, California in Classics: Politics and Heritage and a Masters with Honors from the London School of Economics and Political Science, UK in European Identity. She has conducted academic or independent grant-funded research in the UK, France, Italy, Greece, Russia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, and Albania. She was, previously, an archaeologist and an opera singer. Cynthia Querio is a Museum Educator currently living and working in Los Angeles. She is interested in heritage and identity politics and the role of museum education departments in the trajectory of this debate. She moved to Los Angeles to pursue a 9 month graduate internship at the Getty Villa's education department and has continued to work in many museums in Los Angeles including LACMA and the Autry National Center. Her academic background is in the Classics, which was her major at Stanford University and which she continued to pursue with a Masters in the History of Classical Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art.
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