Reach At-Risk and Underserved Youth Through Performing Arts

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The requirements of the No Child Left Behind act have resulted in arts education being cut out of public school budgets across the nation. That means children are receiving less exposure to opportunities for creative expression, especially if they’re in low-income neighborhoods or living in foster care or group home situations where the chances for extracurricular activities are few.

“Testing mandates for No Child Left Behind have limited anything other than math and language skills in a lot of schools,” says Tom DeCaigny, executive director of the Performing Arts Workshop in San Francisco. “Teachers teach to the test, but we’re starting to see acknowledgements that that model just isn’t working.”

Many private nonprofits and youth agencies are stepping into the gap, not just for the sake of arts education but also because creative expression gives at-risk youth an empowering voice. “A lot of at-risk young people want something real,” says DeCaigny. “Performing arts give them a sense of purpose and humanity, as well as tools for critical thinking and examining their own lives in relationship to the world.”

How to do the arts

Teniqua Broughton, program director with Free Arts of Arizona, says her organization’s programs are typically delivered through group sessions with several students working with one mentor artist. “We find kids are more open to activities in a group than one on one,” she says.

Ray Nelson, founder of Guitars Not Guns, has found the same thing. His program provides instruction in guitar to foster care youths through group music lessons provided by several teachers at once.

A critical component of youth development through the arts is relationship-building between students and instructors. At the Performing Arts Workshop, kids work with the same teaching artist from one week to the next, allowing them to develop a trusting relationship with an adult.

Why it works

“Some of these kids live in the system,” says Broughton of the youth Free Arts serves, many of them long-term residents of treatment centers and group homes. “It’s critical to use the arts with these kids because they need a chance for choice and expression.” Broughton says the arts give young people an outlet for their pain, rather than letting that pain define who they are. “When kids have a chance to say how they feel, it gives them a voice.”

“The performing arts are a safe place to let emotions out,” says Nicolette Stearns, co-founder of ArtStream, a Bethesda, Md.,-based organization that takes theater to underserved communities. “Theater works because it feels safe,” she adds. “It allows for distance, so it’s not like therapy. It’s more abstract, so people don’t feel forced to express themselves.”

Finding support

Stearns says it’s essential when starting performing arts programs for underserved communities to call on local arts resources for help. ArtStream has received support from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County and the Maryland State Arts Council. “Find resources in your community,” she says. “If you don’t know how to do something, go to someone who does.” Stearns and her colleagues also called on old contacts in the theater industry to help with their program and relied on local teens as volunteers. Some of those teens have come back to work for ArtStream as adults.

Recruiting people to teach performing arts to at-risk kids isn’t as tough as one might imagine. Broughton says Free Arts of Arizona has more than 700 volunteers on its roster. “Keeping them and keeping them active is harder than recruiting,” she says, noting that Free Arts is working at capacity and has a waiting list of group homes and treatment centers that want to use the organization’s services.

Nelson, with Guitars Not Guns, also has no shortage of volunteers, attracting instructors who include practiced musicians, attorneys, policemen and businesspeople who happen to know how to play the guitar and like working with kids.

Despite volunteers’ willingness, finding time to teach can be a problem, particularly if the program is run in conjunction with a school or school system. DeCaigny says organizations must work with teachers and administrators in coming up with an arts curriculum that teaches critical life skills, if they want to make use of in-school time.

“We’re in a very competitive academic environment,” he says. “Institutional time is the biggest challenge.” He says it’s also important to evaluate what you’re doing on a continuing basis. “We’ve been around 45 years, but that doesn’t mean we have this figured out,” DeCaigny says. “Make sure kids are responding to what you’re doing.”

Few of the programs conduct formal evaluations, but they rely instead on informal, anecdotal information about their success.

Deborah Huso is a freelance writer in Blue Grass, Va. dhuso@youthtoday.org.