The Fine Art of Youth Programs

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In 1930, 13-year-old Jacob Lawrence began painting at the Utopia Children’s Center, an after-school program in Harlem. Lawrence went to Utopia to find constructive things to do, and that he did: The boy grew up to become one of the most celebrated African-American artists of our time. An exhibit of his life and work recently made stops in Washington and New York before its current stay at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Like a Little Leaguer who grows into a big league star, Jacobs epitomizes the potential of youth development programs to change lives. But just as most Little Leaguers never turn pro, the impact on most kids in arts programs is less celebrated but no less important.

Artistic instruction has been shown to help kids learn how to express themselves, to work in groups and to contribute to their communities. By showing alienated youth they are capable of original, unique and sometimes fantastic creations, arts programs help them build self-confidence.

“Kids learn in different ways,” said Judy Weitz, coordinator of youth projects for the President’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities. “Helping them to reach other adults that have a different approach to learning than a school can help kids whose easiest method of learning is not what the school provides them.”

Each year the commission bestows the Coming Up Taller awards on programs that use art as a method for youth development. A look at four of the 10 winners announced in November (below) reveals an almost uniform characteristic among the kids: They were not previously involved in arts programs.

Some programs do set out to hone the skills of particularly talented youngsters. The Worldstudio Foundation, which offers scholarships and mentoring, received a $650,000 grant in January from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to do just that.

But for average youths, the positive effects of artistic engagement outside of school are well-documented. In 1998, Stanford University and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published “The Arts in the Nonschool Hours,” a decade-long project involving more than 30,000 youths from across the country. It showed that children in arts programs were 31 percent more likely than other youth to say they plan to continue education after high school, 25 percent more likely to report feeling satisfied with themselves, and 23 percent more likely to say they can do things as well as most other people.

“People like to have a sense of purpose that is beyond themselves. For instance, when working on a play, you’re working for the group, for the audience, for the director, and that can be satisfying,” said Steve Seidel, director of Project Zero, a research group in the Harvard Graduate School of Education that explores the cognitive effects of participation in the arts and natural sciences.

“People working together often discover what they are as individuals, because it provides a space in which they can make a contribution,” Seidel said, but he stressed that arts programs must be challenging. A program that seems unauthentic or dumbed-down can make youths believe they can only do things that are easy, he said.

A common element of Coming Up Taller winners was ensuring that youth have a hand in steering the program. For instance, Weitz said that including participants on a program’s board can offer a different and often helpful perspective on how the program can better help kids.

“Give them positions with responsibilities to help the program improve,” Weitz advised. “Treat them as if their opinion matters, because it does. Have them as part of the team that represents the program.”

Another boon: Youth in nonschool arts programs are eight times more likely to receive a community service award than are other youth, according to the Carnegie study. Project Zero’s Seidel is not surprised that engaged children have a positive impact.

“It’s that you’re creating something with meaning, particularly when you are interacting with other people,” he said. “There is a certain satisfaction in communicating something that you’ve been thinking and/or feeling, and at the same time to contribute to the aesthetic beauty of your community or neighborhood.”

Tallahassee Boys’ Choir
Florida State University School of Social Work
2501 University Center
Tallahassee, FL 32306
(850) 644-9741

When Earle Lee arrived in Tallahassee in August 1995 and began a choir for boys from local schools, people in the community didn’t know what to think. Lee was a professor in the Florida State University School of Social Work – hardly a music school. And he had held no auditions: His choir was filled with kids who had never sung in public.

Five months later, the Tallahassee boys’ choir performed at halftime of the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day 1996 – and the community raised its collective eyebrows.

That May the choir traveled to the Bahamas to compete against 165 ensembles from across the world in the International Music Festivals Competition. It returned with four gold medals, including the top prize, the Grande Sweepstakes Award,
having received a score of 98.5 (out of 100).

What is probably most impressive about the Tallahassee Boys Choir, and most beneficial to the Tallahassee community, is not the music, but the commitment to academic success it has fostered among youth. In a public school district in which 67 percent of 2001 high school seniors graduated, every senior member of the Boys Choir not only graduated, but was granted a scholarship to a major college or university.

The choir now has 125 members (age 8 to 18), up from 28 in its first year. Youth attend group sessions on four topics: self-esteem and creation of a positive mental attitude; reading comprehension and literature; juvenile justice and the impact of crime, which is taught with a local police officer; and social skills and etiquette in peer and dating relationships. Members must also attend study hall three times a week and volunteer at a senior citizens’ center twice a month.

Lee said the absence of auditions and a positive, supportive atmosphere drew children who had little reason to believe in themselves. Eighty-five percent of Boys’ Choir members have come from single-parent families, and most were “hanging around, doing nothing” before they joined the choir, Lee said.

“The word ‘audition’ is frightening to children with no self-esteem,” he said. “If we had auditions, the only kids that would try out would be the ones who already knew how to sing, or who already had confidence, and those aren’t the kids that we’re trying to reach.”

The Jessie Ball duPont Fund, centered in Jacksonville, awarded the Boys’ Choir $209,000 in grants in the summer of 2000. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice kicked in a $300,000 grant (aimed at delinquency prevention and reduction). Additional funding has come from the city of Tallahassee, Leon County, the United Way of Big Bend and donations from schools, companies and individuals for whom the choir has performed.

Support for the program has prospered in part because of the media resources available to the choir – thanks to its connection to FSU’s news and information services, which disperses information about the choir’s activities. There has been a lot to disperse: The Boys’ Choir has performed at the halftime of a Dallas Cowboys game, at Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) inauguration, and for Pope John Paul II at his millennium celebration in Italy.

Tohono O’odham Community Action’s Youth/Elder Initiative

Tohono O’odham Reservation
P.O. Box 1790
Sells, AZ 85634
(520) 383-4966

For the children of the Tohono O’odham tribe, a creative, confidence-building outlet is sorely needed. The reservation has the highest poverty rate of any part of Arizona, and many of the reservation’s children are idle after school and during school vacations – or all the time if they aren’t enrolled in school at all.

“The nearest town is 60 miles away and there just isn’t much to do on the reservation,” Terrol Johnson said. “We give them the option to do something good for the community.”

Johnson and Trustin Reader are co-directors of Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), which helps the reservation’s youth learn tribal artistic and cultural practices while also improving the community. TOCA’s Youth/Elder Initiative draws on the knowledge, language and cultural practices of community elders and artists to teach children the value of art in preserving culture.

Kids in the Youth/Elder Initiative, as young as 5, learn traditional songs, dances, legends and storytelling from senior members of the tribe. To preserve these lessons, many of which are only known to a handful of living tribe members, youth and staff use video and audio equipment to record traditional songs and stories from elders in distant communities. With a reservation roughly the size of Connecticut, many of the oral histories that might not have been retained are now being used to give the tribe’s children a sense of cultural identity.

Since Johnson and Reader began TOCA, it has undergone a period of homelessness when it struggled to relocate, and a five-month period during which it received no funding (losing nearly half its staff in the process). Now 6 years old, it has
three programs in addition to the Youth/Elder Initiative: a basket-weaving program, a cultural arts program and a community garden/food project.

Many of the activities offer a number of learning opportunities for kids. For example, Johnson explained how some youth recently learned from elders to plant a garden with traditional tribal plants: “They learn responsibility because they’re the ones taking care of the plants; language, because many of the plant names are in our native language; and songs, because we often sing songs to the plants to make them grow.”

TOCA’s combined budget of roughly $300,000 for the four programs is made up of grants from the Arizona Commission for the Arts, the Andrea Frank Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Johnson has found that tracking the progress of program participants helps raise money. “When you have to do presentations to get funding, documentation can be particularly helpful,” he said. ”You can show them the progress of kids that they worked with who are saying, ‘Look at us now.’”

“We’re in an area that is so rich in culture and we use the program as a basis to pass it on,” Johnson said about the connection between art and youth development. “Historically, in our language, there was no word for art. It was a way of living.”

James E. Biggs Early Childhood Education Center
1124 Scott Blvd.
Covington, KY 41011
(859) 292-5895

People who are not familiar with the Biggs Center often ask Program Director Diane Roktenetz if all the activities might be too much for the kids.

After all, most of the 370 children (ages 3 to 5) are from poor homes in Appalachia, and more than 90 of them have special needs due to physical or mental disabilities.

Yet the children recently received professional instruction in quilting, poetry, black storytelling, dance, theater and many other disciplines. They’ve made cardboard cameras, taken photos and developed film in a darkroom. Roktenetz brought in a small orchestral group for music education.

Maybe this is too much.

Roktenetz said all this is possible because of the children’s creativity, and she doesn’t see their age as a limitation. Quite the opposite, in fact. “Why wait until the child is older, when they are so creative and expressive when they are young?” Roktenetz asked. “The arts are the most helpful tool for making learning a really joyful experience.”

One key to the center’s success is that it isn’t just for kids – it’s for their parents as well. Parents consistently attend Saturday breakfasts and weekend programs. Every Friday, instead of the kids going to school, the teachers go to the homes, seeing each 3-year-old with his or her family twice a month.

Roktenetz is quick to credit the parents for the center’s success. “Parental involvement absolutely has to be at the top of the list. They’re in the building all of the time. Working with children won’t be long-lasting and won’t have impact unless you get the children’s family involved,” she said.

Each of the eight classrooms in the Biggs Center has a teacher and an assistant. Youth come regularly either for the morning or afternoon, Monday through Thursday. Roktenetz writes grant applications to the Kentucky Arts Council, which contracts professional artists to provide art instruction at preschools (for anywhere from a month to a year). As a result, Biggs Center students have learned from professional authors, musicians, clay-workers and a litany of others.

The Biggs Center began in 1990, after passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) requiring state-provided early education to every at-risk or special-needs child. The Biggs Center receives $1.2 million annually in KERA funding through the state Department of Education.

The center also receives federal funding for special education through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and for low-income students through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Public funds are augmented by private donations and grants. The center is housed in a former Catholic school, renovated and maintained by the school district as part of KERA.

Roktenetz also attributes the center’s success to commitments by the staff and the community. Especially helpful was a conference for art teachers at the Kentucky Institute for the Arts, from which staffers returned “believing that there are artists in everyone.”

“If we’re not making future artists, at least we’re making future appreciators of the art,” she said. “Children will learn a song much faster than they’ll learn a lecture.”

Educational Video Center’s Documentary Workshop

130 West 30th St., 7th Fl.
New York, NY 10001
(212) 465-9366

Parents often warn their children to distance themselves from dangers like drugs, gangs and violence. This program shows kids how to get closer to these social ills – as documentary filmmakers.

At the start of each semester, 25 youths from high schools across New York City join the Educational Video Center to make original documentaries about the social problems or issues of their choosing. Participants spend four afternoons a week working on one of two films, earning high school credits and getting involved in solving problems that affect their communities. Past topics include gang violence, inequity in schools and juvenile justice.

Program Director Steven Goodman said the process is meant to be as much like the real filmmaking experience as possible. “We try to give the kids every opportunity to do things the way that adult artists would,” he said. “They take ownership of the project to do real, authentic work. They pass out the flyers, they do the publicity for screenings and they have to answer the questions that any professional producer would have to answer.”

Although they’re not in school as often as they would otherwise be, workshop participants improve their researching, interviewing and writing skills. And many of the demands they face in the program – working as a team, being accountable, meeting deadlines – are similar to the ones they will face in the world of adult work. Some of the workshop’s graduates go on to another EVC program that helps them promote their skills and begin careers in video.

The EVC has received money from more than a dozen organizations, including the Open Society Institute, New York Community Trust and the U.S. Department of Education. The New York City Board of Education provides EVC with space in an alternative high school. The annual budget for the Documentary Workshop, one of three EVC programs, is about $140,000.

One aspect of the Documentary Workshop that has aided fund-raising is the semester-end self-evaluation that participants must undergo. Before a committee of staff members, parents and members of the media, graduating participants must demonstrate improvements they have made from the beginning of the semester. Goodman invites prospective funders to observe. “We’re showing them that we really want the kids to have high standards, that we want them to be accountable for their work,” he said.

No success comes without some hardship. One concern at the EVC is staff retention. Potential hires, with qualifications in filmmaking and video, stand to earn more at any other media organization, or even in the media department of a school.

Goodman said that he and his staff meet on a regular basis to discuss teaching methods and the problems that they regularly encounter, which has helped him retain experienced youth workers.