How Boston Bucked the Trend in Arts Education

Posted by Laura Perille, May 31, 2016 0 comments

Laura Perille is an Americans for the Arts member and recipient of the 2016 Arts Education Award. Find out more about the Americans for the Arts Annual Leadership Arts Awards.

We all know the narrative: arts education has suffered from years of neglect and decline in our schools to make room for tested subjects and to balance squeezed school budgets. This trend has played out in many communities across the country. The data on arts access, especially for students of color and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, makes the impact clear.

However, in Boston we are creating a counter narrative and bucking the trend in arts education. Since 2008, Boston Public Schools Arts Expansion (BPS-AE) has expanded access for 17,000 more students who now receive arts education during the school day. It has increased public funding through the strategic use of private dollars. And, it has dramatically expanded stakeholder engagement in the effort to collectively sustain this expansion.

So how did Boston buck the trend?

We wanted to document how this happened for our learning here in Boston as well as for other cities and organizations to learn from and adapt the strategies we employed. We captured the story and the lessons learned in a new case study, Dancing to the Top: How Collective Action Revitalized Arts Education.


When this work began in 2008, Boston Public Schools had suffered from decades of budget cuts, resulting in an inequitable patchwork of programs that fell drastically short for many of the city’s schoolchildren. While some schools provided their students with robust arts learning opportunities, others didn’t offer anything. Where quality arts education existed, there was little infrastructure to help scale the efforts and ensure that students had equal access. The need was clear.


Making Arts an Advantage in Boston from BPS iCreate on Vimeo.

In 2008, several events converged to form the perfect storm for change: There was growing demand from schools, partners wishing to collaborate to solve the problem, and donors wanting to invest in its solution. There was also new school district leadership committed to arts education.

A group of local funders with a long history of supporting youth arts programs—including the Barr Foundation, The Boston Foundation, Hunt Alternatives, the Klarman Family Foundation, the Linde Family Foundation, and EdVestors—approached the new superintendent with a proposal to create a district-wide plan for arts education.

Four strategic decisions made early on set the foundation for BPS-AE’s later success:

  1.  The first ever comprehensive inventory of school-based arts instruction was conducted. This gave a complete picture of arts education in BPS: In 2009, only 67% of K-8 students in BPS received weekly arts instruction and only 26% of high school students received in-school arts instruction.
  1. Armed with these data, clear and measurable - yet ambitious - goals were set. Namely, that all K-8 students in BPS would receive access to a minimum of weekly, year-long arts instruction during the school day. In addition, BPS-AE would increase the number of high school students receiving any arts instruction, build the capacity of the district’s central office to support expansion, and organize stronger and more efficient partnership among schools and community-based arts organizations. 

  1. Stakeholder engagement began with a small group and then expanded outward. While we began with the small group of leaders that launched the planning process, we then moved to engage dozens of stakeholders–principals, arts teachers, nonprofit partners, teaching artists and researchers–in building a long-term arts education plan for BPS. A high-level leadership structure was activated to provide visibility and cross-sector connections. And parents’ and students’ voices were sought to inform the direction of the effort at key junctures.

  1. Resources were targeted to leverage additional public investment. A collaborative fund was created as a catalyst and incentive to garner an increase in public dollars. This fund, the BPS Arts Expansion Fund, was one of the key levers to realize an increase in funding by the Boston Public Schools, which now invests over $26 million in public funding annually in arts education, hiring more than 120 additional full time arts teachers (up from $15 million in 2009).

Access to quality arts learning was and still remains an issue of equity–how to ensure all students in Boston have opportunities to develop artistic skills, to express themselves, and to reap the benefits arts education provides for college, career and citizenship. Fortunately, Boston is not alone in focusing on this issue–cities across the country including Chicago, Dallas and Seattle are also engaged in collective efforts to reverse the trend. We hope our case study (along with the associated toolkit we created as a guide) will help others chart a course for their own efforts. We also hope to create a conversation! Please share Dancing to the Top with your networks (you can mention @BPSiCreate and #bpsarts). And share your reactions, questions, and ideas with us.  

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