By Taylor Mullaney and Phoebe Tollefson
When Jim Duignan began the Stockyard Institute in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood in 1995, he realized that the arts could enable kids to actually solve problems in their own communities.
“We could really be building work based on the young people’s questions,” Duignan said. “And whether it was spoken word, or whether it was building a radio station, or whether it was public art or whether it was doing walks….They came alive. They just came alive.”
Duignan, 56, a Chicago native and professor of art education at DePaul University, said teachers used to reach out to him for help after he started the institute because their schools did not have art classes. Twenty years later, Duignan continues work to increase access to the arts, and he said he believes Chicago is now at a crossroads for art education.
“A lot of people feel like this is a moment where the rubber’s hitting the road. Maybe a diverse group of people are going to be responsible for us turning a corner….I think we’re at a moment.”
In December, Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a press release detailing $10 million investment in Arts Education for the 2015-2016 school year, which will affect arts teaching positions in CPS. On Jan. 31, the Department of Arts Education held its third annual Regional Arts Day in three locations throughout the city for elementary students to participate in visual art, music, theater and dance workshops.
According to art education experts and teachers, like Duignan, the arts provide cognitive, social and emotional advantages, and these CPS initiatives are a substantial step in the right direction. However, they said, large-scale work remains for all children to reap those benefits, including higher-quality teacher preparation programs, community initiatives and alignment to other district priorities.
Amy Rasmussen, executive director of Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, said kids benefit in three ways from the arts: They learn a skill, they gain deeper knowledge of other subjects and they develop social and emotional maturity.
“We have both anecdotal evidence and statistical evidence pointing to the idea that kids who are in art are better with their peers, they show better decision making skills, they’re more engaged in school and they’re better at conflict resolution,” Rasmussen said.
She added that she does not think recent initiatives are sufficient for those benefits to truly become a reality for Chicago’s kids. Rasmussen advocates for intensive teacher preparation programs and instructional coaching.
“Certainly the investment that the mayor has provided is a great start, but I think it pales in comparison to what we actually need,” Rasmussen said. “I just think the system is under-resourced across the board.…It’s not about giving one-time supplies to teachers or giving one-time opportunities. It’s about creating cultures in schools where truly gifted teaching is supported.”
CPS Director of Arts Education Evan Plummer said art education programming needs to align with the district’s wider academic goals. For example, according to Plummer, new Common Core standards can be implemented in the arts disciplines.
“Arts educators are not to be reading teachers,” Plummer said. “They are not to be math teachers. But there is literacy and mathematical thinking in the arts that I think is important to underscore.”
Plummer said art education is integral not only to a child’s individual achievement, but also to community change.
According to Plummer, the arts are “a holistic education that also engages other parts of the brain, and it’s an opportunity to impact that child’s school community. We’ve seen school communities change when students have more access to arts programming.”
William Estrada, 37, who teaches in the Little Village area of Chicago, said he wants his students to start thinking about how they can affect their community through art from an early age. Estrada is one of three artists in residence at Telpochcalli Elementary School, a school that serves predominantly Mexican students. He also runs an after-school program art program that revolves around public art.
“We started doing something really simple where we’re actually making buttons,” Estrada said. “We’re also thinking about who our public is, what kind of issues are we going to be addressing, and how our school is represented and taking ownership over the representation of the school and focusing on positive aspects that we should be promoting.”
Estrada said that in his 13 years at Telpochcalli , he has seen art provide struggling kids with a safe space to voice their own opinions where they know they will not be judged. As a result, he said, marginalized kids who have been deemed troublemakers often flourish in the arts.
For Adam LaSalle, 24, a choir teacher at Butler College Prep on the South Side, theater education provided a reason to look forward to going to school each day growing up.
“I just thought it was so cool. I found it stimulating and fulfilling and overwhelmingly beautiful….I love what I do. I love it.”
Still, LaSalle said, working at a school where kids are overwhelmingly from under-resourced communities and behind academically makes matters more complicated. LaSalle said he wants to let his students find passion in the arts, but he still grapples with what is truly most important for them to succeed.
“Everyone needs to put in 150 percent more effort than in the average school,” LaSalle said. “I think the arts are super important, but at the same time, I feel silly sometimes teaching kids about rhythm and the importance of music history when they have trouble writing a complete sentence.
“And I think about what will get them far in life, if my job or purpose in that classroom is actually to change trajectories and inspire kids’ lives. Is it really gonna be one lesson or is it gonna be some tough love?
“So sometimes I do, when I even lesson plan, I think is this really the most meaningful thing I could do to help a child?”