Does high-quality arts programming benefit urban tweens? What does it take to recruit young people ages 10 to 14 to these programs—and keep them coming back? A recent webinar hosted by The National Guild for Community Arts Education provided insight into these questions drawn from research and practice in our Youth Arts Initiative (YAI).
Launched in 2014 with a grant to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, YAI selected clubhouses in Green Bay and Milwaukee, Wis., and St. Cloud, Minn. to test whether 10 success principles for high-quality youth arts education could be applied to a large multiservice youth organization that services primarily low-income families.
The clubs offered both regular skill-development classes and drop-in opportunities to learn dance; painting, drawing and mural arts; graphic design, digital music, filmmaking and fashion design. Their experiences are discussed in Raising the Barre and Stretching the Canvas: Implementing High Quality Arts Programming in a National Youth Serving Organization, which found that the clubs could, in fact, implement the 10 success principles.
Learning from Real Professionals
The arts classes were taught by professional teaching artists, such as Vedale Hill, a Milwaukee native who runs a mural arts program and is a full-time staff member at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee—and who participated in the webinar. The clubs also created designated spaces for arts instruction, worked hard with families and students to encourage regular attendance and organized community performances and art shows to showcase the tweens’ creations.
“The teaching artists were real professionals in a field and that really made tweens want to learn from them. They commanded respect and were serious about teaching the art form,” Wendy S. McClanahan of McClanahan Associates, told the online audience. McClanahan is a co-author of Raising the Barre and the more recent Designing for Engagement: The Experiences of Tweens in the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Youth Arts Initiative, which focuses on whether the clubs could recruit tweens engage them in arts activities and whether the programs added value for both the tweens and the clubs themselves. The answer to all, in short, is yes.
Meeting Youth Where They Are
While professional knowledge is important, Hill agreed, effective teaching artists also know how to work with young people. Since tweens are at an age where participation in afterschool programs often declines, he stressed the importance of getting to know the students and their interests before diving right into formal instruction.
“It was important to me, as one of the kids who grew up in the inner city in Milwaukee and knowing where they were coming from, to make it a point to meet them where they were, before any drawing or painting,” Hill explained. “I went to the gym to shoot a round and played soccer and met them as the person they are.
“The best person for the kids,” he said, “is the one who gets them to learn the lesson and have it be relevant content to give purpose to the skill.”
Fostering Youth Voice and Choice
Clubs also gave tweens a say about the programming. Ben Perkovich, director of clubhouse operations for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Green Bay, explained that his club involved tweens early on in deciding what arts programs to offer and even in hiring the professional artists who taught them. That decision was strategic, he noted: “Once we started having them involved in the programmatic direction, that built enthusiasm and excitement.” The clubs in Milwaukee and Green Bay also offered incentives for participation and behavior, such as pizza parties, field trips and art supplies they could take home.
Positive Youth Development for SEL
Tracey A. Hartmann of Research for Action, a co-author of both reports on the Youth Arts Initiative, said the clubs’ use of strong youth-development practices was key to keeping tweens engaged. These included building positive relationships with adults and peers; giving tweens the opportunity to have input and play leadership roles; providing hands-on activities; and ensuring that participants were physically and emotional safe.
“These were deal-breakers for the youth,” she said of the welcoming climate. In return, the clubs expected them to make a commitment to attend the skill-development classes as much as possible, a major change from the drop-in nature of the other programs offered by the clubs.
Tweens developed social and emotional skills along with artistic skills, Hartmann said. “We heard from parents that they saw a sense of responsibly and time management. Parents pointed to the high expectations, the relationship with teaching artists and high engagement with the program.”
For more insights on the benefits of arts education for young people, read this Brookings Institution evaluation of an initiative in Houston to restore arts education through community partnerships and investments. To learn more about the evidence behind the use of arts to improve student achievement—known as arts integration—and which programs would qualify for federal funding under the Every Student Succeeds Act, read our ESSA evidence review.