Out-Of-School Time Arts Programs Are (Inherently) Awesome!
With one foot deep in the arts education world and the other deep in youth development and out-of-school time (OST) work, I have come to the not-so-shocking realization that arts programs easily and thoroughly align with and fulfill what experts and participants agree are the key characteristics of successful youth development programs – hurrah for Creative Youth Development!
I participate in Milwaukee’s city-wide OST network, Beyond the Bell, and recently became a trained external assessor for the Youth Program Quality Intervention (YPQI), a quality improvement process developed by the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality. The purpose of the process is to quantify the quality of a youth development program and help organizations create quality improvement plans. The Weikart Center also offers Methods Trainings focused on quality improvements relative to the measures in the tool.
Measures of quality are divided into four main categories: 1) Safe Environment 2) Supportive Environment 3) Interaction and 4) Engagement. Specifically, the YPQI measures everything down to whether the program space has a charged fire extinguisher to whether staff ask open-ended questions to engage youth in active learning. Although the assessment can be used across any content area, there is an additional supplement specific to arts programs that also aims to measure the mastery of artistic knowledge/skills, interpretation and expression, and making connections (which has not yet been used in our YPQI pilot).
Beyond the Bell has set up a strong support network for the organizations in the YPQI process (5 in the first year pilot cohort that continue to receive training and coaching and 7 new in the current year) and allows for flexibility to meet the needs specific to each organization. For a participating organization the year consists of training, assessments, planning for improvements, re-assessing, and on-going coaching.
The YPQI assessment tool itself is admittedly quite long and takes a substantial amount of time to complete and in standardizing something as broad as the field of youth development many nuances cannot be accounted for in measurement. However, something this process has done for our community is spark a conversation around program quality and begin to build a culture focused on the process of quality improvement.
Being an external assessor has also allowed me to see what different content looks like through this quality lens. Through my observations of both arts organizations (3 of the 12 in Milwaukee) and non-arts organizations, I have observed that the arts programs are an inherently meaningful way to engage youth and to model strong youth development practices. In my experience arts programs often score higher on the YPQI tool than their non-arts counterparts. It is worth noting, that despite this, the arts never fit neatly into any box so the YPQI is usually approached by arts organization with some major trepidation.
I have sometimes observed arts programs that have, to their credit, before being introduced to the YPQI, already intentionally planned to include components that address things like choice, leadership, collaboration, relationship building, and reflection—all elements of a quality program—but to some extent I wonder if the arts, just by nature, are infused with these aspects. Some characteristics of arts programs that I think bring them to the forefront of youth development practices as outlined in the YPQI include:
- The arts are very active, and always engage hands-on learning methods.
- The arts almost always involve a brainstorming/ideation/planning stage such as sketching, rough drafts, rehearsals, etc.
- There is really no way to encourage creativity without sharing control with participants. Though staff might provide some framework, tools, and skills, self-expression is a very personally directed thing that requires a lot of choices and decisions on the part of the participant.
- The arts offer opportunities for exploration, where staff must ask open ended questions and participants are also encouraged to ask and seek answers to questions for themselves.
- There are almost always opportunities to present work or some kind of tangible performance involved in arts programming.
Thinking a bit more conceptually:
- Rarely in the arts is there a “right” or “wrong” answer, meaning there is often less of a fear of failure and more openness to experimenting.
- A sense of emotional safety, trust, non-bias, and opportunities for relationship building are not only required for creativity to flourish, but are present in a way that is unique in the arts.
- Though collaboration is more common in some art forms than others, even when working independently in the arts I would argue there is still a shared goal in the expression of ideas. There is a sense of understanding or empathizing with each other in the work of finding our own meaning and helping bring our audiences into that meaning, and a solidarity in the trial and error process.
Whether it is the YPQI, or some other tool or process that helps assess quality, I believe this is an important conversation because it helps us see where arts programs/Creative Youth Development lands in the larger context of youth development and what we may have to offer the field in terms of identifying what makes a quality program. I have also seen the value first hand of a community that is beginning to buy in to the continuous approach to quality, not as a finite thing we achieve but as an ongoing process. The quality conversation is so valuable in order to ensure that we are doing the best we possibly can for our youth.