The Los Altos Art Docent program was co-founded in the spring of 1970 by Nancy Marston and Marlene Grove. Frustrated by looming state funding cuts for art instruction in public schools , the two co-founders were determined to keep art in the classroom. As a community service project of the Junior League of Palo Alto, the original “Art Enrichment Program for the Los Altos Elementary Schools” offered a “portable museum of fine reproductions of famous paintings” to be brought by volunteers into the classroom when requested by the teacher.
In the program’s inaugural year, 17 trained volunteer docents delivered 80 one-hour presentations, including a 3-part unit on American Art to complement the 5th and 8th-grade social studies units on American History, a 2-part fundamental unit to present basic art principles for 4th grade, and a basic art elements unit on animals designed for kindergarteners. Monthly presentations were designed to “cultivate an enjoyment of art” rather than simply teach about art, with the foremost goals of bringing fine art into the classroom, developing a child’s interest in and art appreciation, and to show how art reflects the period in history in which it was created. Volunteers were recruited from all schools in the district and they served in any school where the program was requested. Since funds were not available through the school district to cover the cost of materials and miscellaneous expenses, docents were asked to consider making a small voluntary donation of not more than one dollar for the kitty. Docents were expected to deliver two presentations per month.
The program was enthusiastically received by teachers and students and grew rapidly in its first four years. The docents organized a Spring Art Show in 1971 in downtown Los Altos in collaboration with the Village Association, highlighting the theme of “The World of the Young Artist.” The show included one piece of art per student from the 11 schools in the district.
By 1975, the number of classroom presentations had nearly tripled, and new hands-on lessons were developed to include watercolor painting, clay tiles, clay animals, cut paper animals, and flowers and wire sculpture. Eight board members collaborated with a district-paid part-time secretary to ensure the efficient communication and implementation of the program from its new office location at Covington School.
Over the next four decades, the Los Altos Art Docents earned the admiration and support of educators and volunteer organizations throughout the county and started offering training workshops for other school districts and private schools in the area. The annual art show blossomed into a beloved community celebration at Hillview Community Center, showcasing docent-guided artwork from each elementary school student, with docents leading hands-on activities for families to enjoy. The docents nurtured a renewed focus on the development of critical thinking in children as a result of their art experiences, and highlighted the benefits of using art across subjects.
In 1989, the Art Docents received Santa Clara County’s annual Glenn Hoffman Exemplary Program Award for innovative and creative programs and played an integral role in the creation of new scope and sequence for the visual arts, implemented district-wide. With funding from LAEF and special funds from the State Department of Education, every teacher in the district participated in a hands-on in-service training session to learn how to teach the four major art elements and principles of design – line, shape/form, color, and texture.
Over the past 50 years, the Los Altos Art Docents have trained more than 500 docents to deliver a distinct curriculum of unique lessons to all elementary students during the school day. Technique-based lessons in a variety of media (including watercolor, clay, cut paper, printmaking, drawing, photography, sculpture, and digital media) focus on the process of creating art with new techniques and the principles of design. All of our current lessons combine art appreciation with hands-on activities that complement the academic curriculum and meet California State Visual Arts Content Standards.
Now in its 50th year, the program is thriving with 95 trained volunteer docents, including 11 elected board positions, two district-paid program employees, a 9-member curriculum committee to revise and develop new lessons, biennial student art shows at each of the 7 elementary schools, and a robust training program. In a normal school year, we average 800 classroom presentations, delivering nearly 50 unique lessons to all TK-6th grade students across the district. As part of their annual agreement contract, docents are expected to be in the classroom leading or assisting lessons once a week, or 4 times per month. Each of the elementary school PTAs contributes a mere $4.50 per student annually to cover the cost of materials, office supplies, training, and program expenses.
The Los Altos Art Docents take pride in teaching art in a manner that expands a nd motivates the development of creativity and curiosity in the children of the Los Altos School District. Our program involves the imagination of the child and increases his or her technical skills in the creation of art. Our vision statement speaks to the mission and philosophy of our original founding mothers as we continue to “reimagine art education as a key component of learning.”
 In 1970, the passage of the Ryan Act in California eliminated art and music requirements for elementary teacher preparation. In 1978, Proposition 13, the landmark property-tax cap, resulted in school funding being cut, and shifted funding from local communities to the state. Districts were forced to cut staff and programs, hitting the arts hard. In the 1980s and 1990s, independent teaching artists, parent volunteers, and educators from state and local arts organizations partially filled the arts gap in some schools on a limited basis. [California Alliance for Arts Education, https://www.artsed411.org/resources/historical_context ]