The November 2013 Wallace Foundation report, “Something to Say: Success Principles for Afterschool Arts Programs from Urban Youth and Other Experts,” lists 10 principles seen as best practices for high-quality arts activities. In commissioning the report, the foundation’s goal was to help program providers understand how to improve access to arts education among kids in disadvantaged urban areas, said Lucas Held, Wallace Foundation communications director. These practices should help service providers offer arts programming that engages tweens, even those who are part of larger youth programs.
1.) Instructors are professional, practicing artists
Among the musicians who have worked with children in the Alabama Blues Project are professional musicians Willie King, Johnny Shines and Carolyn Shines. WritersCorps in San Francisco hires poets such as harold terezón [sic] and Sandra Garcia Rivera.
“All of our instructors are working artists,” said Stephen Guzman of SAY Sí, a multidisciplinary arts program in San Antonio, Texas. SAY Si involves artistinstructors in organizational issues and program development. In its 20 years, some former students have grown up, become artists and come back to teach. Ashley Perez, for example, a visual artist now employed by SAY Si, was once a student there.
2.) Executive directors are committed to the arts program
The Latin American Youth Center in Washington, D.C., offers an array of social services. While the arts are not its only focus, Executive Director Lori Kaplan maintains strong support for arts programs, even after her budget was reduced.
“It’s a big part of the life of the organization,” Kaplan said. “Art enriches young people’s lives in a really profound way.” Kids may be drawn in initially because they want to do photography or radio, then get connected to after-school tutoring or college advising, she explained. “For us, it’s really been a way to engage young people in critical thinking around issues that impact their lives.”
3.) Dedicated spaces are inspiring and welcoming
Big murals and mosaics are displayed through the Latin American Youth Center in Washington, D.C., where kids develop skills in photography, music, digital media and visual arts. The displays affirm the value of art.
At Youth Radio in Oakland, Calif., a state-of-the-art media center enables kids to produce radio programs on professionalgrade equipment. Their journalism awards line the walls. It’s a “place of aspiration,” said Lissa Soep, Youth Radio research director.
4.) Programs have high expectations and respect for creative expression
Formally stated values and codes of conduct express an organization’s values, the Wallace report asserts.
Students sometimes are expected to contract to meet certain expectations. Teaching artists may also set and communicate high standards, while also creating an encouraging atmosphere, helping kids produce work that goes beyond what they imagined they could do.
5.) Public events showcase kids’ work
Many organizations are thinking beyond the typical audience of parents and grandparents, said Peter Rogovin, of Next Level Strategic Marketing. When young people’s art is displayed in a community, “that tells the young person that what they’re doing it valuable,” he said. It also shows the community what young people can do and encourages public support for their efforts.
For instance, outside SAY Sí on a Saturday night in March, kids stood and welcomed guests to their annual fundraiser, which included two rooms of students’ painting and graphic art, which visitors could buy.
6.) Positive relationships exist with adults and other kids
Young people desire ongoing supportive relationships with adults, the Wallace report notes. Best practice youth development organizations provide mentoring relationships that help kids feel accepted. Artist mentors demonstrate, discuss and create a framework for projects. They ask questions to help kids formulate and carry out their ideas. When a respected artist encourages young people’s ideas and takes them seriously, kids feel they matter.
Tweens, in particular, feel a strong need for acceptance. The main theme in early adolescence, according to Gil Noam of Harvard, is “where do I belong?” Successful arts programs recognize the importance of social interaction and foster good relationships.
7.) Kids can shape programs and take leadership roles
Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia has studio arts classes, exhibits and community- based programs — and also runs an award-winning visual arts drop-in program called Teen Lounge, in which kids can work with resident artists. For each four-week session, 15 to 20 artists submit proposals, said Linda Fernandez, manager of children and youth programs. Then a fair is held for the artists to show their proposals to the kids. The teens interview the artists, then convene and decide who is hired for the session. It’s a unique opportunity for teens to make decisions, Fernandez said. “It encourages their buyin for the program,” she said. “They’re more invested.”
8.) Programs focus on hands-on skill-building with current technology
At Youth Radio in Oakland, Calif., kids go on-air in a live Web radio show after only two weeks in the program, highlights the Wallace report. At the National Dance Institute of New Mexico, teens are up and moving within 10 minutes of the first session.
9.) Programs engage a network of outside support
SAY Sí often presents student films to community and other nonprofit groups. A local water authority official saw a film, was impressed and commissioned students to create a film on water conservation. The film became part of a local high school science curriculum.
Organizations widen their support when they make connections throughout the community. They also create more opportunity for kids to show their work and connect kids to a larger world. A wide net of community support can include law enforcement, local businesses, health care providers and the media, the Wallace report points out.
10.) The environment is physically and emotionally safe
Middle school-age kids face a shifting social landscape at school. They often feel insecure. Kids engaged in the arts may not find acceptance as quickly as those engaged in sports. In addition, the creation of art can often be intensely personal and involve expression of strong feelings. Thus, arts programs must create emotionally safe spaces, the report notes. Artist mentors set the tone. They accept young people’s feelings and allow free expression within an atmosphere of respect.
Picture this: A 14-year-old girl at Youth Speaks, in San Fransisco, California, found it difficult to read her poetry in a workshop. Rather than push her, the poet mentor suggested she simply say one word from her poem each time. The other kids accepted this technique, and eventually, the girl was able to express through her poetry the pain of her experience of sexual abuse.
See related article “Making Arts Programs Sing“