It’s no secret that arts education has long been an afterthought in many cash-strapped public school districts. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education documented the “equity gap” between rich and poor districts in the arts offerings students received.
But in Chicago, that picture has been changing. Here, 2012 marked the launch of the city’s first Arts Education Plan in a quarter century.
The plan called for arts to become a core subject in public schools, for school leaders to make staffing and community partnerships a priority and for every elementary student to spend two hours every week in arts classes.
Now, five years later, mounting evidence shows these goals are being reached in schools across the city. Last week, the arts advocacy group Ingenuity released its latest report on the state of the arts in Chicago Public Schools, and the news is good: More schools are reporting information, more arts teachers are working in the schools and more schools are deepening and expanding the kinds of arts instruction they offer students. Most importantly, more schools in long-neglected areas of Chicago are reporting stronger arts programming for students.
First of all, the quality of information we have on arts education in Chicago is improving.
This year, 97 percent of the city’s public schools took part in Ingenuity’s arts education survey, an all-time high. Charter schools—which have been less likely to report data—are getting into the game, too. From 2016 to 2017, charter schools’ survey participation rose from 67 percent to 91 percent. They have also made strides in improving the quality of their arts programs. The share of charter schools rated strong or excelling rose from 39 percent in 2016 to 57 percent in 2017.
Today, 73 percent of students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools attend a school rated strong or excelling—the top two categories—of Ingenuity’s Creative Schools Certification scale. The scale measures a school’s staffing, time for arts instruction and, at the high-school level, number of arts disciplines offered.
Although one-third of Chicago’s public school students still lack the depth of exposure to the arts envisioned by the arts plan, equity of access to arts programs appears to be improving.
Increased Equity in Arts Access
Notably, schools located in the most underserved areas of Chicago—the city’s South and West sides—are also showing improvements in access to arts.
When the city launched its Arts Education Plan in the 2013 school year, only 13 schools in these neighborhoods were rated strong or excelling in arts education. By 2017, that number had increased nearly fivefold, to 62 schools. And the increases were driven by schools whose ratings improved, not by newly reporting schools.
For example, North Lawndale College Prep-Collins, located on Chicago’s West Side, has greatly expanded its arts offerings. In 2015, the school had only one visual arts teacher and no community arts partnerships.
Since then, North Lawndale-Collins has added staff, expanded course offerings and built a partnership with Free Spirit Media. By 2017, the school had the equivalent of three full-time instructors and theater and media arts had been added to the course offerings.
In spring 2017, North Lawndale-Collins held its first Arts Night, featuring student exhibits and performances. More than 200 students, parents and community members attended. “It was a really cool energy around the arts,” said visual art teacher Amanda Brandimore.
Chances are good that positive arts energy can be sustained, thanks to Chicago’s deep commitment to arts in schools, coupled with a new state funding formula bringing much-needed cash to the district. Carving out a new priority in schools takes money and political will. The arts resurgence in Chicago schools offers a textbook case in how to make lasting change with a commitment to equity for all students, no matter where they live.