Students participating in Gallery 37 perform at Millennium Park. Gallery 37 provides students with the chance to learn about careers in the arts and is part of After School Matters. | Photo by Mark Chong Man Yuk Credit: Mark Chong Man Yuk

Like dozens of other CPS schools, Key Elementary on the West Side has no arts program—no teacher and no partnership with the Joffrey Ballet or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or any of the other arts institutions that grace Chicago.

Though CPS pays for a half-time arts teacher at smaller schools of up to 750 students, Key Principal Margo Giannoulis-King says she couldn’t find a candidate who wanted a half-time job. Instead, she opted to hire a full-time librarian (which the district would pay for).

Across the city, Higgins Elementary School on the far South Side has two certified fine arts teachers and a strong partnership with the Chicago Children’s Choir.

Higgins Principal Mable Alfred notes that she’s not an “artsy person,” but that she’s continued the tradition of investing in the arts at her school because she sees how it helps students.

“It makes a difference to give children a well-rounded education,” she says. In her tenure at Higgins, state test scores have risen from 67 percent meeting standards in 2009 to 80 percent in 2011.Numerous studies show that arts education can improve overall academic performance.

In part because of the advent of the longer school day, arts education is on the front burner in CPS. Parent groups and the Chicago Teachers Union have said they would like to see more art and music classes. Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke about using the additional time for more music and art classes. And with the backing of local foundations, the non-profit group Ingenuity Inc. was created recently to advocate for more arts in schools.

The district is now embarking on a major arts plan that is intended to provide a roadmap for providing high-quality arts education across the district.

But with no certainty about additional funding, one question is still unanswered: How will the new initiative create and sustain improvement?

“Forests and deserts”

As the stories of Higgins and Key—both small, low-income, predominantly black schools—demonstrate, arts education in CPS is mostly hit-or-miss. Consider the numbers:

  • Like Key, 70 other elementary schools—over 10 percent—have no teacher assigned to teach the arts, including music.
  • Overall, the district has one certified arts teacher for every 500 elementary students.
  • At the majority of elementary schools, students take one class per week in either visual arts or music, depending on which discipline the school decides to focus on.

“We have forests and deserts,” says Mario Rossero, CPS’ director of arts education. “How do we learn from the forests and how do we direct more resources toward the deserts?”

Those numbers are in stark contrast to other districts. Nationwide, most schools offer both music and visual arts classes to students at least once a week, according to a report from April 2012 by the National Center on Education Statistics. That’s the case in many suburban schools, such as Oak Park Elementary School District 97, which has one art teacher for every 155 students and offers a class in art and music every week.  

CPS elementary schools that offer classes in both disciplines—typically paid for with discretionary money—are the exception. Many of the elementary schools with robust arts education are part of the district’s magnet cluster initiative, which provided an extra arts teacher at about 100 schools. But this year, CPS trimmed the initiative by $2.6 million as part of budget cuts to meet a deficit. At Higgins, Alfred says she lost a half a position but will use discretionary money to keep the teacher full-time—a solution that principals often choose.  

Rossero says he would like to see every student have exposure to all four arts disciplines—visual arts, music, dance and theater—but admits that at the moment the district is heavy on the first two. “The thing we need to do is look at successful models,” he says. “There’s a lot of successful programs out there.”

In 2001, a ground-breaking report from the Chicago Arts Education Initiative found that the lack of clear standards for elementary arts education contributes to disparities. High school students are required to have at least have one year of art and music to graduate, so arts teachers are more evenly distributed at high schools. Yet some high schools offer Advanced Placement classes in arts, while other schools offer only basic courses.

In many high schools, students don’t take an arts class until junior or senior year, especially in schools with students who are behind in core subjects and must take double periods of reading or math to catch up. In such cases, students with a latent, undiscovered talent or love for art don’t discover it until it is too late for them to pursue it seriously with advanced coursework

Rossero acknowledges that problem, saying he is working with high school schedulers and the high school Graduation Pathways program to figure out strategies to get teens into arts classes sooner.

Moving forward

When Emanuel and CEO Jean-Claude Brizard announced this past spring that the new arts department would develop an arts plan, they said it would be “unprecedented.” (The plan will rely in part on private funding.)

Rossero says that he is excited because the plan will bring together various groups who want more arts education—teachers, arts organizations, parents, district leadership and even students.  

In the past, Rossero points out, arts education was mostly pushed by private foundations and outside groups.

Recommendations from the groups will be presented to a steering committee that will develop the plan, including Brizard and Board President David Vitale. Rossero hopes the plan will be ready for release at the same time as the Chicago Cultural Plan, slated to be finished in October.

The arts plan will include guidelines for what a robust arts program would look like at a school, but Rossero says it will not suggest a change in policy to require more arts programming. He hopes that principals will use the information to assess how their school compares to a model program.

One concern raised by arts teachers is that formal art and music education will be replaced by private partnerships, and certified teachers replaced by artists with alternative teaching certificates.

Rossero, however, says it’s not a question of one or the other—“It is yes and both”—and notes that certified teachers often take the role of leading a school’s arts program, coordinating partnerships and other experiences for students.

That was one finding of the group Ingenuity Inc., which took a comprehensive look at arts education in CPS. The group’s report found that schools with an arts teacher on staff were 12 times more likely to have outside partnerships—providing some fuel for the union’s call for more arts teachers.

Ingenuity Inc. also found that only an estimated 900 of 1,400 certified arts teachers are actually teaching art; that some schools rely on private money to help pay for a full-time teacher; and that the work done by outside arts partners is scatter-shot—some might be at schools long-term on extensive projects, others come in for a day to do a performance.

The union has viewed Ingenuity Inc. with some suspicion—wondering if the group is more interested is primarily interested in private partnerships rather than improving arts learning—but Executive Director Paul Sznewejas says he’s agnostic on the matter.

“If you are getting arts from an arts teacher or a partnership or both, the point is that you are getting arts,” he says. “We want to make sure every child has access to art education.” A data analyst for his group is looking at differences in arts education among the various school networks, and Ingenuity Inc. will work to improve schools that lag behind, he says.

On-the-ground reality

This spring, the CTU formed a committee to push for more arts education and held informational sessions at schools across the city. At a session at Kenwood Academy, about 40 teachers came straggling in.

The teachers were told of the CTU demand that CPS pay for two full-time arts teachers in each elementary school. At $75,000 per teacher (including benefits), the cost would be about $30 million.

“We wanted to let you know that, so that you could support it,” said Raymond Wohl, head of the CTU arts committee and a teacher at Marshall Middle School. “Would everyone be patting themselves on the back and celebrating science or math if they were only funded with half a position for every 750 students?”

Teachers talked about their plight. One teacher said she landed in the displaced teachers’ pool after a new principal opted not to pay for her position, even though the principal had pledged a commitment to the arts during the interviewing process. Other teachers spoke of the difficulty of working part-time at two schools and complained that they received no money for supplies.

Jennifer Hall splits her time between Wacker Elementary and Neil Elementary, two schools about three miles apart. Hall is supposed to give each student at least five grades per marking period. But because of limited time, Hall says it’s difficult to get the students to finish five projects.

“I might see them only four hours a month,” Hall says.

Both schools expect Hall to keep fresh work on class bulletin boards. Neither principal gives her money for supplies–Hall says she thinks they expect her to find grant money, but says it’s a challenge to pursue grants for two different schools.

“I ask parents for supplies or I take whatever I have access to,” Hall says. “The principals want great art programs, but then when you ask for money for supplies, they say, ‘I don’t have money for that.’”

Rossero understands the difficulty. As a visual arts teacher at Harold Washington Elementary, Rossero notes that “We had crayons and little else.” He doesn’t believe district policy should force principals to reserve money for the arts, but hopes that principals will see, via the arts plan guidelines, what a quality program looks like and decide on their own to put the resources in place.

One of Hall’s schools, Wacker, has some outside partnerships for after-school programs—which Hall says would have more impact if she were at the school full-time. “I could collaborate with the program, I could extend what they are teaching from a small group of students to the entire school,” she says.

Hall found out about the partnerships after they were in place, highlighting another concern: Traveling from one school to another can make a teacher feel like an outsider. “We have two full sets of parents, teachers, administrators to work with,” Hall says. “It is a disservice to all involved.”

In 2009, some of the same local foundations that fund Ingenuity paid for the creation of a new arts department in CPS. Though Brizard dismantled it, the arts guide and sequential curriculum written by the previous staffers—all of them experts in arts disciplines—is still considered a valuable resource among teachers, including Hall.

Hall says she appreciates having some concept of what is expected at each grade, even if the expectations don’t fit with reality.

For example, 2nd-graders are supposed to be able to use clay to make shapes, which “sounds great,” she says. “But I hardly ever have clay. I can’t remember the last time I had clay.”

Dean Niedenthal, the art coordinator and music teacher at Higgins, says he knows he is lucky and gives Principal Alfred the credit. Higgins has a brass band, keyboards and percussion instruments, as well as a room fully stocked with arts supplies.

“She’s brilliant,” Niedenthal says. “She’s a magician.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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