Chicago Arts Partner Study: Theatre and Literary Arts

Aug 25, 2011
In summer 2010, the Chicago Community Trust commissioned four nonprofit arts organizations, including the League of Chicago Theatres, to work with arts educators and develop practical and actionable recommendations that will enable arts partners to serve more Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students -- and serve them better -- through arts education. Over the past year, the theatre and literary arts education communities have contributed countless hours and numerous invaluable insights, many of which are reflected in this report. This study asked a few straightforward questions: What is the capacity of Chicago's theatre and literary arts partners? What will enable arts partners to increase that capacity, and what is getting in their way? How can supports -- new or existing -- be created, adapted, expanded, or simply better distributed to give arts partners new tools and techniques? Through an extensive survey, interviews, and numerous group convenings, this study came at those questions from a variety of angles. And strikingly, the copious amounts of data generated and the extensive conversations all pointed to a few basic ideas. Fundamentally, the ability of theatre and literary arts partners to develop new programs depends on the relationships they have built. And their ability to sustain successful programs, too, depends on the relationships they have built. What is the biggest constraint to their capacity? Those same relationships. This becomes particularly true in an environment in which resources are constrained -- the single most effective step that individual theatre and literary arts partners can take is to concentrate on the relationships they are building with principals and teachers and with their contacts in the district office. When working with high schools, where challenges and distractions are even greater, these steps become ever more critical. Theatre and literary arts partners already know that principals and teachers are critical to their success. We recommend that:
  • Arts partners work closely with principals and teachers to understand schools' priorities and goals prior to pitching potential program offerings. Many groups have found that customizing or semi-customizing their programs after such a conversation leads to a better and longer-lasting fit with the school. Arts partners may want to reach out to other school stakeholders such as resource coordinators, curriculum coordinators, parents, and local school councils, among others, to conduct a needs assessment. Theatre and literary arts partners should also take advantage of the wealth of information that existing "matchmaker" organizations know about schools. Similarly, when they find a "true believer" -- a principal, teacher, parent, student that can enthusiastically engage others about the impact of the organization's arts programs and/or the field -- that person should be enlisted immediately as an advocate to his or her peers. Lastly, the theatre and literary arts education community should work together to share their successes and strategies on an ongoing basis.
  • Funders assist by providing information about local needs and introductions to key leaders in communities. Funders should also support training for arts partners in developing and sustaining effective partnerships.
  • CPS help arts partners make connections with principals and should facilitate opportunities for supportive principals and teachers ("true believers") to share their arts education experience with their peers.These critical relationships and partnerships can help theatre and literary arts partners weather a complicated set of challenges within schools. Some arts partners have described CPS as a place of tremendous uncertainty, where a sense of being in "survival mode" prevails. In this environment, where principals and teachers are under pressure to improve test scores and academic outcomes, translating the value of arts programming can be difficult: effective tools do not yet exist; arts partners do not have access to the data that could help them make their case; assessment and evaluation can be difficult and frustrating for all concerned. To ensure that theatre and literary arts partners can build successful, sustainable programs for CPS students, we recommend that:
  • Arts partners evaluate and measure programs based on the priorities and goals they jointly establish with school leadership, so they can then demonstrate progress according to the schools? needs. Arts partners should share program evaluations with all stakeholders, including teachers and students, and could engage these stakeholders in focus groups to deepen their understanding of program impact. The theatre and literary arts partners also expressed a strong interest in working together, across organizations, to share and learn from each others approaches to assessment.
  • Arts partners, funders, and CPS generate greater awareness of the assessment tools and supports that currently exist for arts partners because a large number of providers do not know about current resources in Chicago. Arts partners, funders, CPS should also collaborate to demonstrate arts program effectiveness in terms that matter to school leaders, such as the linkages between these programs and academic outcomes.
  • Funders provide resources for deeper, quantitative studies of program effectiveness, especially in academic terms. Funders should also enter into a dialogue with arts partners to establish effective approaches to assessment that will meet both the funders' needs and the schools' needs, without being burdensome for arts partners.
  • CPS enhance the Chicago Guide for Teaching and Learning in the Arts to include the supports that theatre and literary arts partners say would most enable them to expand capacity: best practices in developing and continuing relationships with principals and teachers; guidance on translating the impact of theatre and literary arts programs to Common Core standards and academic outcomes; and comprehensive approaches to assessment. CPS should also complete the sections still in development, such as the literary arts chapter, and ensure greater awareness of the Guide among classroom teachers and arts partners. Active users of the Guide could be enlisted to train non-users.
Meanwhile, the field as a whole -- arts partners, funders, CPS, and stakeholders -- needs to continue working together to transform policy and support for arts education. Everyoneshould engage new CPS district leadership and push to establish changes in policy that will lay the groundwork for stronger arts education in schools, including graduation requirements, structural support for arts education, and training requirements for principals and teachers. It has never been easy to work with large districts like Chicago Public Schools, which itself faces many challenges in trying to help its students succeed personally and academically. And it is to the credit of arts partners that they choose to bring their dedication, passion, and ingenuity to a task that is simply so challenging. The data that follow paint a vivid picture of these challenges. The recommendations will absolutely require hard work by many parties -- but the heartening news is that they are attainable. Part of the solution is in helping people better relate to each other in creative ways.
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