• Elizabeth Tobias

Russ Sperling Plays it Forward as VAPA Director of the San Diego Unified School District


How can we best educate children in San Diego to navigate an unpredictable and complex future? How do we prepare them to become the innovators, creators, thinkers and collaborators of tomorrow?


The San Diego Unified School District is proud to call itself one of the highest performing large urban school districts in the United States. The district has grown to be the second largest in California, serving more than 121,000 students.


The District and the Board of Education has undertaken Vision 2020 to make sure its students are always ready for the future. Their mission is for all San Diego students to graduate with not just the skills to succeed in their choice of college and career, but also the motivation, curiosity and resilience to lead and participate in the society of tomorrow.


Among the guiding principals of the district is for all students to have equitable access to arts education.


“An arts education helps children and youth make sense of the world, communicate their unique ideas across boundaries, and discover who they are as individuals and as members of various groups. Students who experience a quality arts education have an opportunity to engage in complex and nuanced thinking around meaningful work.” states the California Department of Education.





The Visual and Performing Arts Department of the San Diego Unified School District (VAPA) provides curriculum and instruction, professional development and community collaboration to support the highest quality arts education in dance, music, theatre, and visual arts.


At the helm of this vast and ambitious VAPA department stands Maestro, Russ Sperling. Tall, confident and proud, Sperling is responsible for all components of arts education in San Diego Unified. His list of awards and accomplishments is a reflection of his ability to lead the way.


Russ Sperling, VAPA Director SDUSD

Sperling purposefully crafted his multifaceted vision of public arts education over more than two decades. From his early career as an award-winning Music Director at Helix High School to receiving the Outstanding Administrator award by the California Art Education Association, to founding the San Diego Pride Youth Marching Band, Sperling leads the VAPA department like a true conductor.


During his prior tenure with the SD County Department of Education, Russ led the formation of the Arts Empower Task Force in 2016 to develop and draft a Visual and Performing Arts Strategic Plan. The plan would serve as the roadmap for the district to develop comprehensive, high quality, sequential TK-12 arts curriculum for all students.


Under Sperling’s leadership of the VAPA Department, the board of trustees unanimously approved the district Strategic Arts Education Plan in the fall of 2016.


The priority areas of the plan are: Resources, Curriculum, Professional Development, Visual and Performing Arts Magnet Schools, Community Engagement and Relationships.


Sperling was also instrumental in forming a vital support organization, the VAPA Foundation. The foundation is an independent, non-profit fundraising arm that supports the district’s VAPA programs and enhances the quality and access to arts education in San Diego Unified schools.


What drives Russ Sperling to have such boundless dedication to arts education? His eyes brighten as he reminisces about a childhood road trip. With Tchaicovsky’s 1812 Overture blasting from the 8 track tape player, Sperling, vividly recalls conducting an imaginary orchestra from the back of the family station wagon. The experience was transformational. He discovered his destiny and has never looked back. He has only played it forward.


Arts+Culture:San Diego is a coalition of over 100 arts and culture organizations dedicated to strengthening our diverse cultural ecosystem and achieving the Penny for Arts and Culture funding plan in San Diego.

Questions? Email us at advocacy@artsandculturesd.org

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