By Laura Perille
We have all heard the story: Arts education has suffered from years of neglect and decline in our schools to make room for tested subjects and to balance squeezed school budgets. This trend has played out in many communities across the country and particularly in large urban school districts. Students of color and those from low-income backgrounds have been disproportionately affected by the decline in arts education during the school day.
In recent years, a number of cities have worked to counter this trend by forming coordinated networks of schools, cultural organizations, funders, local governments, and other groups to work in partnership toward high-quality arts education for all young people. These new models have ranged from city-initiated endeavors such as The Creative Advantage in Seattle to enterprises managed by external partners such asIngenuity in Chicago and Dallas' Big Thought. Boston, too, has been engaged in expanding arts education over the past seven years through an effort known as Boston Public Schools Arts Expansion, or BPS-AE, a mixed private and publicly funded coalition facilitated by my nonprofit organization, EdVestors.
The efforts of these four cities stem from the belief that by investing in young people's creative capital today, we are nurturing the entrepreneurs, inventors, policymakers, and active citizens of tomorrow. While each city is unique, the public-private partnerships involved in this work employ common strategies.
All of them:
• Bring together multiple stakeholders to advance the goals of expanding arts education;
• Use data-based assessments to identify gaps in access and equity, establish measurable public commitments and policies, and track progress;
• Regularly communicate with community members about progress toward goals and funding to encourage community members to advocate for and take ownership of these efforts;
• Invest in the people (families, youths, teachers, teaching-artists) engaged in this work at the deepest level and connect them with others (elected officials, philanthropists, school leadership) to help move the needle; and
• Employ a "both/and" approach that prioritizes increasing the number of in-school, certified arts educators while augmenting arts education through organized partnerships with their own city's rich cultural resources and teaching-artists.
"By investing in young people’s creative capital today, we are nurturing the entrepreneurs, inventors, policymakers, and active citizens of tomorrow."
In 2009, only one in four Boston public high schools offered meaningful arts instruction to more than 25 percent of its students; only 5 percent of elementary school students and 6 percent of middle school students received twice-weekly, yearlong arts instruction, according to a report from BPS-AE. The city's decentralized, school-based management system allowed individual schools to make their own decisions on allocating resources to arts education, which led to a disjointed patchwork of arts offerings and inequitable distribution of arts-learning opportunities across the district. A handful of school, district, and civic leaders wanted to change this. Their belief that arts should be part of a well-rounded education for all students gave birth to the BPS-AE.
In the earliest days of the effort, we in the coalition—partner organizations, the Boston district, and outside funders—made a critical choice to conduct the first-ever comprehensive inventory of the school-based arts instruction students received. Armed with data and a complete picture of arts education in the Boston schools, we set clear and measurable, yet ambitious, goals which still remain the compass points for all BPS-AE activities.
We built a multi-tiered leadership structure, including an advisory board of influential civic, philanthropic, business, and nonprofit leaders with stature, networks, and visibility to lend to the effort. We also engaged in a participatory planning and development process aimed at authentically engaging the people directly involved in arts education—teachers, community arts organizations, and school leaders. We sought the input of students and families to bolster the design of program offerings and make the case for the demand for arts education. This engagement engendered broad ownership at multiple levels that has sustained the work through three superintendents, two mayors, and dozens of other civic transitions.
From our earliest days, we had interest from donors, many of whom were already funding in-school arts learning. We leveraged their money to build appetite at the school level by financing partnerships with nonprofit cultural organizations and teaching-artists. This funding was an incentive for schools to make different decisions with their flexible budget dollars and prioritize hiring arts teachers in their buildings. In only seven years, this strategic philanthropic investment has leveraged a 5-to-1 increase in public funding for in-school arts education through the support of arts teachers' salaries. As a result, the 80 percent more full-time, certified arts teachers now working in Boston public schools and 70 external partner organizations are delivering arts instruction to 17,000 more students annually, as compared with seven years ago.
Years of education reform have taught us that such progress is all too rare. BPS-AE recently published a case study, "Dancing to the Top: How Collective Action Revitalized Arts Education in Boston," documenting the work that led to these positive outcomes to inspire other urban school districts looking to undertake a similar commitment to arts education.
Access to quality arts learning is an issue of equity. Ensuring that all students have opportunities to develop artistic skills, to express themselves, and to reap the benefits arts education provides for college, career, and citizenship will require continued commitment in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, and across the nation.
Laura Perille is the president and CEO of EdVestors, an urban school improvement nonprofit based in Boston. In 2016, she received the national Arts Education Award from Americans for the Arts.