May 13, 2019

SPOTLIGHT: Arts Learning

Rigor. Risk. Relevance. These are the features of the strongest arts learning programs. And, research shows, these are some of the things that young people need to develop the personal, social, and intellectual skills critical to success in life, school, and work.


The fusion of youth development principles with arts and culture is a natural one. The strongest arts learning programs:

  • Are rigorous and provide deep learning in an art form
  • Give young people the chance take safe risks through self-expression and experimentation
  • Are relevant to the lived experience of young people
  • Help young people connect with and make sense of other aspects of their education and their lives.

Ultimately—these are the skills of an artist, and they support the healthy development of young people.

The Fry Foundation’s funding strategy in Arts Learning has been two-fold:

  1. To invest in the highest quality programs that provide high degrees of rigor and engagement and reach students with the highest need.
  2. And to invest in efforts to improve the policies and conditions that make it more likely all CPS students will have access to arts learning opportunities. The Foundation currently supports 40 arts organizations that primarily serve low-income children and youth in Chicago. This portfolio includes a range of arts organizations from large major cultural institutions to smaller culturally specific arts organizations.

The Foundation looks for high-quality arts instruction programs that include the following elements:

Clear learning goals that articulate what students will learn in the arts

Experienced instructors who are experts in the art form and instruction

Well-designed curriculum and lesson plans that guide instruction

Duration of no fewer than 20 hours of instruction

Appropriate space, resources, and materials required for successful learning in the art form

Exhibition and performance opportunities

Exposure to professional artists, performances, and exhibitions

A track record of effectiveness that demonstrate the depth and trajectory of student learning

Evaluation and reflection that drives program improvements

A focus on serving low-income Chicago



Programs serving teenagers emerged as an area of strength among our grantees

Fry Foundation grantees have experience working in high schools. Grantees report increased demand for programs serving teenagers, and grantees are developing new strategies to help retain students as they transition from grade school to high school. When grantees were asked in a Fry Foundation survey about which organizations they most admired and why, a set of grantees serving teenagers were consistently listed as highly respected by their peers.


These admired organizations stand out for their ability to provide high-quality arts instruction and for the ways they support the development of young people, an approach known as Creative Youth Development in the Arts.

How the Fry Foundation is helping grantees advance Creative Youth Development in the Arts

Fueled by rising demand among teenagers for arts programs that meet their artistic goals in environments that are aligned with where they are developmentally, the Fry Foundation is working with grantees to deepen or expand their programs for teenagers. We are supporting several grantees to test new program strategies, including ways to best serve students as they transition from grade school to high school.

In programs provided by the Chicago Children’s Choir, the rigor of instruction and the complexity of curriculum increases as students progress through the program. This approach creates a pathway of high-quality arts instruction that sets high expectations for all members of the Choir. It allows students to grow in their artistic practice while taking on greater responsibility and leadership in the Choir, skills instrumental for long-term success in school and life. The Fry Foundation is helping the Choir pilot a school-based program that guides middle school students through the tricky moment when voices are changing and a student’s love of singing can dampen. We hope this effort will help students stay on a pathway of music learning through high school and beyond.

Red Clay Dance is a new grantee in the Arts Learning portfolio. Red Clay is a seasoned professional dance company that performs a diverse repertoire of contemporary dance inspired by artistic culture from the African Diaspora. Red Clay’s dance education program offers a robust menu of programming that builds skills and dance technique. Its in-school dance residencies are deft at balancing rigorous dance instruction steeped in ballet, African, and contemporary dance with opportunities for students to choreograph and perform original work. In the creation of original work, students collect stories from their communities, identify a theme, and collaborate to create choreography based on the stories collected. The balance of instruction and creation allows students to develop new skills; experiment; and take both personal and artistic risks—just like a professional artist.

The Fry Foundation continues to look for opportunities to help grantees reach more teens; work with more high schools; and test new instructional ideas or program models that could advance their work with teens.