October 6, 2011

Joining Forces to Save Arts Education

Budget troubles and relentless testing are putting pressure on arts educators as never before. In Chicago, artists and educators are discovering that there is strength in numbers. By combining forces, they are working to ensure that arts instruction not only survives, but is expanded, improved, and available for all Chicago students.

Chicago Arts Learning InitiativeWhat makes for a quality education? In recent years, the focus has been overwhelmingly on improving reading and math skills, as measured by standardized tests. When budgets are tight, the arts get short shrift. But arts instruction not only introduces children to the pleasures of art—it also fosters creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communication, and appreciation of other cultures, all attributes that contribute to success in school, in the workplace, and to the development of thoughtful and engaged citizens.

In Chicago, over 300 individuals, including arts teachers, funders, leaders from Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and arts organizations, have organized the Chicago Arts Learning Initiative (CALI), with a mission of expanding and improving arts education for the city's children.

Their goal is to ensure that "all Chicago Public School students will have access to innovative and engaging arts education both in and out of the classroom," so that they can "develop as innovative thinkers and creative problem solvers who are capable of expressing themselves, understanding others and contributing to the culture of their time."

The key, CALI participants believe, is collaboration—working together to build a mosaic out of the scattered pieces that make up arts instruction in Chicago. Arts organizations, for example, offer many strong programs for schools. But many schools don't know what is available, and the programs are not aligned with school curricula, so that they can reinforce what students are learning in their academic classes. Some schools provide rich arts instruction led by dedicated CPS arts teachers, while other schools skip arts entirely. But no one has been keeping track. By working together, arts groups, funders, and educators hope to do a better job of identifying and organizing resources, filling gaps, building capacity, improving the quality of instruction, and building public support for the arts as an essential part of every child's education.

CALI is starting by gathering information and mapping the availability of arts education in Chicago public schools. "First we have to look at the big picture, and then look at the art teachers and arts partners already working in the schools," says Mario Rossero, who until recently oversaw the CPS Office of Arts Education and helped launch CALI. By collaborating with CPS and organizations like Arts Alliance Illinois, which gather information on different aspects of arts education, CALI hopes to help parents find schools with strong programs for their children, help schools find strong arts partners, and to enable the arts community to identify places where additional resources are needed. "For example, the Chicago Children's Choir has a really affordable program to create a school choir, but many schools don't know about it," Rossero says. Getting that information out there, helping schools find outside resources, exploring ways that schools work together and with the arts community—such steps can expand arts offerings even in the face of budget cuts elsewhere.

CALI has crafted recommendations to improve the quality of arts instruction through better school planning, professional development for teachers and teaching artists, and collaborations aimed at expanding arts experiences for students. At Cooper Elementary Dual Language Academy, for example, teachers and outside arts groups work together to build learning experiences for children. The vision of arts permeating education is apparent to even a casual visitor at this largely Mexican American school, where the exterior walls feature colorful mosaics of Mexican and Mexican American heroes and where mariachi music, played by fourth and fifth grade musicians, echoes through the hallways. When the fifth graders were studying the U.S. colonial period in social studies class, a local arts group, Pros Arts, helped students create their own "living museum," complete with displays, costumes, and student docents. "That teacher told me she'd never had such an easy time teaching the colonial period—she'd never seen students internalize the material the way these kids did," says Principal Martha Monroy, a CALI leader. The example proved contagious, as other teachers looked for ways to use arts to further learning. Says Monroy, "The arts really bring learning to life."

Ultimately, expanding arts education requires making the case that arts are not a frill but an essential part of education, as they are at Cooper, and deserve to be supported. CALI participants believe that working together is a way to get there.