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Published in Print: June 18, 2008, as Districts and Partners Coordinate on Arts Education

Districts and Partners Coordinate on Arts Education

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With an array of classes in such novel genres as ballroom dancing and slam poetry, as well as those geared to more traditional visual art and music lessons, arts education in Chicago appears to be holding its own, and in some cases thriving, amid budgetary and curricular constraints. Keeping those programs going in the 409,000-student district, however, has long depended on partnerships with local organizations and support from private funders.

More than 250 local arts organizations and 200 foundations in Chicago ally themselves with schools to provide professional development, teaching materials, visiting artists, and after-school programs. Now, some of those outside groups are working more closely with the school system to bring greater coordination between school- and community-managed programs and ensure their sustainability over time.

“It’s incumbent on us to all be speaking the same language” and striving toward similar goals, said David Roche, the director of arts education for the district’s 600 schools.

Mr. Roche’s position was created nearly two years ago, primarily with funding from more than a dozen foundations, to help organize arts education throughout the city. His office is mapping out a detailed K-12 curriculum to help guide core arts classes and supplementary programs.

The arts program for the Chicago public schools includes opportunities for students to show their work in citywide competitions each year." height="267" width="200"/>
"My Heart Throb" by Liliana Estrada.
The arts program for the Chicago public schools includes opportunities for students to show their work in citywide competitions each year.
—Student art courtesy of the All-City Art Exhibition and Chicago Public Schools

Like many urban districts that tap private resources for arts education—from businesses and foundations to arts councils and individual artists—the ventures in Chicago have lacked such coordination, and too often their goals have been at odds with the formal arts curriculum or established programs.

A new report by the RAND Corp. has found that in Chicago and five other urban districts, efforts to align schools, cultural institutions, community-based organizations, foundations, and government agencies to improve students’ exposure to arts education are inadequate. The districts—including Alameda and Los Angeles counties in California, Boston, Dallas, and New York City—have joined forces with multiple providers of arts education with varied instructional approaches and differing views of what makes for a quality program, according to the report.

Moreover, such endeavors are “fragile, vulnerable not only to policy and political changes, but also to blows such as test-based assessments and non-arts subjects and the related lack of time and space in the school day,” concludes the report, which was commissioned by the New York City-based Wallace Foundation. (The Wallace Foundation underwrites coverage of leadership in Education Week.)

Differing Goals

The findings point to both the potential benefits and problems with outside funding for arts programs, according to Michael Blakeslee, the senior deputy executive director of the National Association for Music Education.

Private funding for school arts programs can too often be used to supplant district support for supplies and staffing, Mr. Blakeslee said. Outside resources may not be intended as a core program, or even fit in with the existing offerings, he noted.

“The schools’ goal is education of the kids and meeting whatever the standards are in the subject,” Mr. Blakeslee said. “A foundation or any other entity getting involved might have a different set of goals,” such as developing a future audience for the arts, or focusing on students who demonstrate talent in a particular art form, he continued. Some private programs seek to have arts lessons integrated into other subject areas, as opposed to strengthening stand-alone, sequenced courses in specific genres.

“That’s not to say their goals aren’t worthy,” Mr. Blakeslee added, “they just might be different from the goals of a school-based art education program.”

Yet in many cases, those partnerships are all that keeps such programs afloat.

In Los Angeles County, a consortium of 100 organizations, foundations, businesses, and education agencies signed on in 2002 to a 10-year plan to restore arts education in the county’s 80 school districts. About a third of those districts have since hired arts coordinators, restocked instruments and supplies, and added arts classes. ("Arts Education Building Steam in L.A. Area Schools," June 13, 2007.)

When arts education programs in Chicago were gutted during budget cuts in the 1970s, local arts organizations built their own in-school and after-school classes in some schools. Some groups have built reputations as providing the de facto art education programs for the public schools.

Such groups represent a “growing cottage industry,” the district’s Mr. Roche said.

While Chicago has its own established programs, such as an acclaimed citywide music competition, and it has built up its corps of certified arts teachers to about 800, there are still schools with inadequate offerings, Mr. Roche said. His office is trying to make a case for comprehensive arts education with principals, who make many budgetary and programming decisions under the district’s site-based-management policy.

When the Money’s Gone

Some experts suggest that the best solution is to secure a greater commitment among district and state education leaders for sustaining arts education.

“There’s always the question of why isn’t more public money just coming to the schools for art education,” Mr. Roche said. “There’s the view that there’s a sunrise and sunset on any foundation funding, that it’s not perpetual. So what happens when the money isn’t there anymore?”

Some philanthropic enterprises have been crafted to secure that commitment and bring greater consistency and clarity to the field.

The Chicago consortium, which includes 18 foundations, provided seed money for the district’s arts office, but will require the district to pick up more of the cost as it reduces private contributions.

On the national level, the VH1 Save the Music Foundation donates new instruments to districts that agree to make music education a core part of the curriculum, hire certified teachers, and maintain the program over time.

A self-portrait by Alysha Wilson.<br> The arts program for the Chicago public schools includes opportunities for students to show their work in citywide competitions each year.
A self-portrait by Alysha Wilson.
The arts program for the Chicago public schools includes opportunities for students to show their work in citywide competitions each year.
—Student art courtesy of the All-City Art Exhibition and Chicago Public Schools

“It’s really meant to be a jump start. It’s intended that a school will take those 30-38 instruments we give them and use them to build on and expand on their program,” said Paul E. Cothran, the VH1 foundation’s executive director.

Participants are required to return the instruments if they fail to maintain their programs, something done only rarely in the decade since the $40 million initiative was launched. Some 1,500 schools in 100 cities take part.

“We’re really looking to restore music programs in those schools that have lost or are at risk of losing them,” Mr. Cothran said.

Teachers and administrators should examine such agreements to make sure they help promote quality in their arts education programs, align with their curricular goals, and are designed to support a broader program, experts say.

“While you are looking at those outside resources, it should be seen as a wonderful opportunity and as supplementary,” said Deborah B. Reeve, the executive director of the National Art Education Association, a Reston, Va.-based organization that represents educators. “But don’t discount ... the greater responsibility to be certain that students are provided art education from highly qualified teachers.”

Educators should resist the temptation to just take money that is offered to them without careful consideration, experts say.

“Nobody wants to turn away any resources, but you have to see that they are used in an appropriate way and you have to have really solid goals for those resources,” Mr. Blakeslee said. “The extra funding is fine as long as it gives a little extra to the program, but if it takes over and becomes the principal source of funding for the program, it’s a problem.”

Vol. 27, Issue 42, Pages 8-9

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