The Value of Community-Based Arts Education
Say the words “arts education” and most likely you think of K-12, classroom-based, standards-based arts instruction tied to the school curriculum. (You may also think that there’s an extreme lack of this happening in the current school system, and you would be right.)
When I attended my first National Arts Education Council meeting for Americans for the Arts this past January, the question was posed: “What is arts education”? After some awkward silence and darting eyes, council members began expressing their perspectives on what arts education meant to them. What emerged was a kaleidoscope of approaches and contexts: classroom-based and community based, during school and after school, arts integration and arts education, K-12/higher education/life-long learning, arts as education and arts as social service, etc.
As Founder of A Reason To Survive (ARTS), our arts education world is community- based and focuses more on the social service and creative youth development aspect of arts education. I am often asked (usually by funders) if our classes are standards-based and tie into school curriculum or if we provide in-school classes, etc. Although many of our classes are standards based, it is not the focus or intent of our program. For ARTS, we lead with the priority of helping youth to express themselves and to find their voice in creative ways. The art instruction comes secondarily and intrinsically as youth strive to hone their voice by learning a chosen medium and wanting to express themselves in progressive ways.
In some worlds, arts education in the community setting doesn’t hold as much value as in-school arts instruction. There’s a perception that the quality of instruction and experience isn’t as great because it isn’t held to a same “standards”. Often it’s not standards-based, not tied to the school curriculum, and doesn’t fit within the test-driven school culture. Besides funders and the organizations themselves, there isn’t anyone one regulating and holding after-school arts programs accountable like the system that has been set up to educate our kids. I wonder…is that such a bad thing, considering the state of our education system? The current school system is not designed to infuse our youth with creativity, as Sir Ken Robinson so famously noted.
In my opinion this is what makes community-based arts education so great! Often these community-based programs were started, and are run, by passionate artists who experienced the transformative power of the arts first hand. We get it and understand what the students need. We have flexibility, we can explore and take risks, and we don’t have handcuffs on when designing our programs. We listen to the students, define what their needs are and then co-create programs to support them. We are able to support individual students in unique ways knowing their strengths and weaknesses. Our programs are often based on the real world and our students interact with professional artists in their respective fields, engaging in real world projects.
An example of this real-world engagement at ARTS recently was the opportunity our students had to work with artist Roman De Salvo creating bike racks for the City of National City. Rather than buying bike racks from a manufacturer, the city decided they wanted to have functional art bike racks throughout the city, so they contracted ARTS and our youth to work with local artists to conceptualize, design, and fabricate them. The artist gets paid, the students get paid apprenticeships, and the city gets new unique bike racks – it’s a win-win-win. This unforgettable experience and opportunity would not have fit into the school environment.
After-school and community-based arts programs are an incredible opportunity to truly educate students through the arts and provide them with experiences and opportunities they are not getting in the school environment. Teaching in this environment goes beyond measuring outcomes solely on artistic progression and academic performance. The approach puts the focus on the whole child and how they connect with their peers, their community, and the outside world. Outcomes are often based on developing critical life skills, social/emotional development, civic engagement, social change and justice, and college and career readiness in the arts and creative industries, amongst other indicators. These efforts have been defined as Creative Youth Development (CYD).
There is a current groundswell of energy and momentum behind this movement supported by the recent report by the Wallace Foundation “Something to Say” on after-school arts programs for tweens and teens and the National Creative Youth Development Summit held this past spring in Boston. Both of these initiatives outline the importance and tremendous impact community-based after-school arts programs have on students. The conclusion is there is tremendous value in these programs and more funding, infrastructure, and collaboration is needed to truly reach the full potential.
I’m not saying that any “one” form of arts education is better than the other – they all hold value and power. But if combined together, in a meaningful and purposeful way, we can create an extremely powerful experience for students that can be life changing. Schools, districts, administrators, and community organizations all need to work together to provide an arts safety net for youth that infuses creativity in every part of the classroom and in their communities after school. It’s not either/or – it’s ALL, and our youth and the communities where they live will truly benefit.