Study Sings Praises of Youth Theater

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Sperling: “The University of Michigan is saying this! I’m not crazy!”

Photo: Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit

While the growing demand to boost academic achievement is squeezing out arts activities and funding, a theater program in Detroit has found a way to show evidence that it, too, has an impact worth paying for.

In 1992, after funding cuts left Detroit’s public schools bereft of arts programs, professional actor Rick Sperling founded the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit. Over the next decade, with Sperling in the director’s chair, Mosaic became an internationally award-winning vocal, acting and technical arts ensemble.

But Sperling thought something more was happening: that the artistic skills that Mosaic’s young artists honed after school were behind the improvements he saw in their academic, professional, personal and social lives.

And it was: A three-year evaluation released in May by the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor found that Mosaic had a positive impact on the academic, personal and professional development of youth.

“It means a lot that the founder isn’t the only one” saying the program works, Sperling said. “Now I can say, ‘Look, the University of Michigan is saying this! I’m not crazy!’ ”

The evaluation was done with just $30,000 from Mosaic’s grant from The Wallace Foundation, and through a partnership between Mosaic and the University of Michigan’s Detroit Initiative, a group of faculty members and students dedicated to collaborative community-based research.

“It was the best per-dollar investment I’ve ever heard of in the evaluation world,” Sperling said.

Leveraging Resources

Each year, the Mosaic Youth Ensemble provides nine months of free, after-school education and training in acting, vocal music and technical theater (such as staging and lighting) to approximately 100 mostly low-income minority youth, ages 12 to 18.

Open auditions are held annually on a first-come first-serve basis. There is no academic threshold for admission. However, participants sign a contract requiring them to maintain good academic standing (as defined by their schools) and submit their quarterly report cards.

The youths, coming from more than 50 Detroit-area schools, agree to practice three hours on Tuesday and Thursday nights and four hours on Saturdays. Participants may be dismissed from the program “at will” for failure to meet any of the program’s requirements.

In 2003, Sperling approached Lorraine M. Gutierrez, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, about a possible evaluation.

“He knew, as a theater person, that he could say they were doing an outstanding job teaching kids the skills they need to have to be artists and actors. So the question really was, ‘Does it have impacts on other aspects of their lives?’ ” Gutierrez said.

In order to produce a rich evaluation that fit Mosaic’s budget, Gutierrez gave some students course credits to collect data, and paid advanced students with federal work-study funds to conduct research analysis. She launched what she calls an “empowerment evaluation” – a participatory method in which researchers use a logic model based on a program’s goals, experiences, perceptions and questions.

The evaluators set out to measure how three core elements of Mosaic affected the skill sets, self-esteem and social attitudes of participants:

Expectations: Setting high standards for excellence, commitment and professionalism, defined by Mosaic as “an ideal combination of exemplary conduct, accountability and technical mastery.”

Environment: Crafting a safe space that stressed the acceptance of each individual, offered support, and created a family atmosphere and sense of belonging.

Empowerment: Engaging youth through active participation and providing opportunities for healthy risk-taking and life choices, autonomous of adults.

Vantage Points

Gutierrez used a mixed-method evaluation design intended to capture both quantitative and qualitative data from unique vantage points. Among its key elements:

• Pre-tests and post-tests administered to each entering class from 2004-07 were based on the outcomes that Mosaic hoped to see transferred beyond the youths’ theater work. Gutierrez believed showing statistically significant improvements over a three-year period could partially compensate for the lack of a control group in the evaluation.

• Focus groups conducted with young artists, staff members and parents allowed for in-depth and open-ended questions. A content analysis of this feedback identified several themes. For example, parents described increase in the maturity level of their children.

• Mid-year individual assessments, in which Mosaic staff members reviewed the young artists’ grades and artistic abilities, provided snapshots of overall well-being.

• A Web-based survey of alumni collected crucial follow-up data that took into account the program’s “sleeper effect,” Gutierrez said.

The alumni survey findings were “the most profound thing that came from this,” Sperling said. “When you’re having a transformative experience, you don’t always realize [it] while it’s happening. You need the context of several years.”

What They Found

The evaluators found evidence of a significant positive impact. Among the findings, broken down into three areas:

Skills: Ninety-five percent of Mosaic Youth Ensemble participants graduate from high school. A recent study by the America’s Promise Alliance calculated Detroit’s graduation rate at 24.9 percent, placing it dead last in a list of the nation’s 50 largest cities.

Eighty percent of alumni surveyed had graduated from or were attending college. In her evaluation report, Gutierrez attributes Mosaic’s academic impact to several factors, including its review of participants’ report cards; its rule that participation is contingent upon academic standing; referrals to academic support services; positive peer role models; and its performances at colleges throughout the Midwest.

Self: Eighty-one percent of Mosaic alumni reported that they experienced more personal growth at Mosaic than in any of their other teen activities. More than eight in 10 alumni agreed or strongly agreed that the program improved their ability to develop self-esteem.

Society: Post-testing found that 78 percent of the young artists reported regularly attending arts and cultural events in their communities, and 68 percent reported participating in those events. More than half of Mosaic alumni said they volunteered in their local communities. The vast majority of alumni said that Mosaic helped them develop trusting relationships with adults (89 percent) and strong and trusting friendships with peers (96 percent).

Mosaic’s Payoff

Sperling says, the evaluation will help the organization in three ways.

First, it should help attract funding and other resources. “Before this evaluation, we weren’t taken seriously in terms of what [Mosaic] does for education,” Sperling said. “On a broader scale, it [the evaluation] lets people know that it isn’t always what’s happening during the school day that’s making the greatest impact on young people in the classroom.”

Second, documenting the Mosaic Model creates a roadmap for other organizations that want to do arts-based youth development. Mosaic is now able to share its model and findings with emerging programs, he said.

Finally, the evaluation helps keep Mosaic focused on the program’s stated mission and goals.

“Since we published the model, it’s impacted the decisions we’ve made internally,” Sperling said. “It says, ‘This is what we do, this is our philosophy, this is why we think it works.’ The evaluation, “Excellence on Stage and in Life: The Mosaic Model for Youth Development through the Arts,” is available at