A program that uses culture as the basis for literacy and arts instruction helped raise the test scores of children who participated, according to the results of a study by the educational arts non-profit Changing Worlds.

Researchers from Loyola University began in 2009 to follow 95 students from 4th grade through 6th grade at three schools: Goodlow Magnet, a predominantly black school in Englewood; Whittier, a Latino school in Pilsen; and Boone, a racially diverse school in West Ridge.

In 2011, test scores for students in the Literacy and Cultural Connection program were an average of 11.5 percentage points higher than those for students in a control group. The biggest gains were at Goodlow and Whittier, neither of which have any other arts and culture programs.

Adrian Selvie, a teacher at Goodlow, believes the program broadens students’ perspectives. “Some students don’t have an opportunity to connect outside of their community,” said Selvie, speaking at an event where results of the study were released. “But when they get a taste of it, they buy in and want to continue that through high school.”

Jacob Daniel, a 7th grader who participated in the program, said his most memorable moment was a drama lesson during which he and his classmates “acted out scenes that relate to our family.”

Changing Worlds’ students outperformed non-participating students on arts assessments, performed better on measures of writing and arts learning, and demonstrated deeper cross-cultural understanding.

The Changing Worlds curriculum is unique in that it incorporates cultural awareness, literacy, and the arts. “There wasn’t really any program that combined all three,” said Mark Rodriguez, Changing Worlds’ Executive Director.

Students explore their own culture and identity, discover larger historical themes by interviewing relatives or community members, and share their own stories and what they’ve learned through the arts.

Teachers in the program collaborate with teaching artists and literacy specialists from Changing Worlds during 60 to 80 minute-long sessions over the course of 12 to 15 weeks. Since launching in 2003, the program has been implemented in more than a dozen schools. Changing Worlds hopes to expand the program to as many as 25 schools next school year.

In addition, they have plans to create a sustainability plan so schools “can do this on their own once we leave,” said Karen Ekpenyong, Changing Worlds’ Program Director.

The organization is looking for “schools that share our values and have a need for this kind of programming,” said Ekpenyong.

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