More Than a Number: The Role of the Arts in Youth Development Programs

Posted by Jennifer Oliver, Dec 23, 2015 0 comments

When a potential supporter for creative youth development approaches me, one of the first things I tell them is to look at the numbers. This model works. Students who participate in rigorous, arts-based after school programs perform better in school and have higher graduation rates than that of their peers who do not participate in the arts. I reference programs such as The Wooden Floor in Santa Ana, Say Si in San Antonio, ARTS in San Diego – the results are impressive. It is at this moment that I have their attention. I have connected my work to something they value: academic success.

As someone who has worked in the arts for my entire career, having people outside of the arts connect with what I do is addicting. For years I struggled with articulating the benefit of an arts education, and with one quick statistic, I have their support. Ironically, this addiction to being understood has left me feeling misunderstood.

I believe strongly that developing young artists is of great value and not just because an arts education will improve academic scores.  Tapping into the arts offers a pathway for students to access their deepest and most authentic selves and provides them with a creative outlet for expression and reflection.  While helping students improve their academic scores and increasing student graduation rates is a goal of my work, it is not the core value.  Academic achievement does not define their value as individuals and should not define the value of my program.

When we define student success (and therefore program success) by students’ academic achievement scores, many talented, intelligent students are left feeling displaced.  I know this intimately as my own personal academic history involved a similar struggle.  I was not a great student. I was terrible at memorization and had a fear or being put on the spot. When a teacher would call on me to give the “correct” answer to a question, I would freeze. My heart rate would speed up, my mind would go blank, and I would have nothing to say. Tests were worse. I would leave many answers blank and exit the room feeling flawed. In fact, for much of my youth I truly believed I was just, “not smart.”

Now as a youth leader, I ask students to strive for academic excellence, but know that academic achievement does not in totality define their strengths as individuals.  As students embark upon an arts process -diving into the unknown, imagining new possibilities and working collaboratively towards a production- students discover a broader definition of success.

I personally choose to lead through dance and have witnessed the impact that dance has made on the lives of many. I think often of one of my first students, Michael, who had a difficult time connecting to his peers and often landed in the school office for losing his temper. Michael chose to participate in my after school dance program and was by far my most artistically creative student. I celebrated his choices often and found that he had an ability to create work that was unlike anything I had seen from other students. Before class one day I saw Michael angrily chase one of the girls in my class for laughing at him. I quickly brought him outside and as he looked at me, anger still in his face, I expressed my confidence in him. I told him that if he could find a way to control and focus his energy on dancing, he could remain in my class. At our final performance I asked Michael to perform a solo that he had created in one of our choreography classes. On stage Michael was captivating. His mother approached me after the performance in tears. “This is the very first time I have seen Michael succeed at school. You made my son a star, and I will never forget this.”

As the Artistic Director of A Step Beyond, I am currently developing a ten-year after-school dance curriculum for low-income students in grades three through twelve. As students move through this program, I see them take ownership of dance in their lives, build an acute awareness of their body, experience and reflect on dance from other cultures, contemplate dance as a social change model, and strive for excellence through a somatic dance technique curriculum.

Not all of my students will go on to become professional dancers, and this is not my definition of success. Through this curriculum I hope to produce not only high school graduates, but citizens healthy in mind and body. Citizens with experience articulating their own values while being mindful of the values and diversity of their peers. Citizens who know how to lead while encouraging the people around them. Citizens who appreciate the beauty and brilliance of the natural world, knowing how to pause and listen to its wisdom. Citizens who can make difficult choices in order to create beauty.  Artful citizens.

By moving away from determining success by graduation rates and academic scores, we put the child at the center of our work. By leading through the arts, we help students develop the habits of mind to find success in all of life’s circumstances. Building blocks as defined in recent research as the knowledge, the mindset, the values and the self-regulation ability necessary to become successful adults. By moving toward creating artful citizens, we make room for them to dance confidently into adulthood.


Explore the research:

•Something to Say: Success Principles for Afterschool Arts Programs From Urban Youth and Other Experts by Denise Montgomery, Peter Rogovin and Nero Persaud. The Wallace Foundation, November 2013.

•The arts and achievement in at-risk youth: findings from four longitudinal studies by James S. Catterall, University of California Los Angeles with Susan A. Dumais, Louisiana State University and Gillian Hampden Thompson, University of York, U.K.

•Foundations for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework by Jenny Nagaoka, Camille A. Farrington, Stacy B. Ehrlich and Ryan D. Heath from The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

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