It’s 8th-grade science, yet art supplies cover the table in front of me. I’ve spent the prep creating plasticine textures to demonstrate biomimicry models. This scene has played out hundreds of times throughout the last seven years during my time as a visiting artist and community partner with the Cambridge Public School District (CPSD).
This path began when I was hired by Lesley University to run a youth arts program. I was tasked with connecting a vibrant working artist studio with a local middle school.
Cambridge Creativity Commons (CCC) launched in a visual artist’s studio to inspire creativity in grade school students and their teachers. After only 6 months into the work, the studio was effectively shut down. In the midst of numerous projects, we had no choice but to move the program into the school.
I was a young, self-motivated, arts educator with a passion for making things happen! I was naive to the obstacles that others might experience when suddenly uprooted and thrown into a public school district’s gaze. Later, I heard from many partners about the seemingly impenetrable forces of collaboration with the district. For some of my colleagues, who also offered programs at no cost, it took years to form partnerships. And that came with a plethora of unanswered emails, repeat voicemails, and hopeful networking.
With blind luck, I gained enthusiastic support from the new principal. Shortly thereafter, I began implementing arts-integrated programs with the willingness of several teachers. This succeeded primarily through relationship-building, as well as the ability to teach various art techniques and sheer perseverance. Between working with the ELA teacher, then the Social Studies, Math and Science teachers, my schedule was pure chaos. I theoretically became the ‘teaching artist-in-residence’ virtually overnight! And this was on top of my sole job of curriculum development, outreach, fundraising, grant-writing and trying to expand the program.
What about CCC’s art supplies? They lived between spaces, generously housed at other community organizations, Lesley University and stashed in teachers’ closets. An empathetic city employee offered me an office at a run-down school building. This labor of love did not come with a high salary or any strategic plan. I flew by the seat of my pants! And I did everything in my power to support and appease the teachers and their students.
The Pros of Working within School Walls
However, working within the school walls gave way to unexpected developments. I was there almost every day, so was able quickly to learn a lot. I developed collegial relationships with the teachers. Additionally, I gained a healthy understanding of the students. The welcoming smiles from the school secretary oftentimes made my morning! These relationships were invaluable to the growth, longevity and positive association with the program.
Teachers shared our projects with other teachers in the district. We cultivated new opportunities at different middle schools. On their routine visits, administrators would observe classes I was leading and therefore could write well-informed support letters for grants. I spent time recommending strategies for arts integration at various teacher PD trainings. After-school programs got wind of what was happening in school and we began to form new collaborations during out-of-school time.
Ultimately it provided me with the experience of being ‘part’ of the school community. Careful not to become trapped in the bureaucracy, I began to understand the culture. As a community partner, we had more freedom to cultivate. I could implement projects that aligned with our creative mission, yet leverage and benefit from a budding reputation within the school.
Of course, there are also challenges to being a community partner. No matter how strong a partnership, it is very difficult to ever feel fully integrated into a school system.
One of the feats is to provide continual proof of deliverables that measure up to the public school requirements. In contemporary public education, filled with standardized tests and accountability, arts and arts-integration isn’t usually a high priority. Take progressive districts where the fiscal spending per child is well above the national average. The arts still take a back seat.
It took over four years of providing free programming with substantial qualitative results, for the school district to grant us a modest stipend. Understandably, running a grassroots program, solely on grant money is not a sustainable model. Now, even, as a self-employed teaching artist, who still finds and writes her own grants, I find a wariness from certain administrators… Even when their teachers attest to the benefits I bring to their students.
Another and more surprising push-back was from art teachers themselves. I saw as a life-raft to keep arts afloat in the schools. But some art teachers saw as a threat to their jobs. The fear that arts-integration was going to take away the need for a full-time arts specialist had no grounding. But in a field that already is the underdog, it was a concern for many. The teachers with whom I thought I’d have the most synergy were (surprisingly) the ones who viewed me as a potential enemy! Over the years I battled this assumption by leading district-wide arts trainings, joining forces with the visual and performing arts coordinators and eventually becoming allies and collaborating with several art teachers.
Partners in Arts-Integration Across the Nation
My experience of running an arts program with very little support and sheer perseverance to keep it going is not a unique story. However, there are several successful arts-integration programs throughout the United States that are growing and generating considerable impact. The Kennedy Arts Center in Washington, DC is working nation-wide, targeting schools in desperate need of a turn-around. One of their programs, called Changing Education Through the Arts (CETA) focuses on teacher professional learning to train teachers in best practices of arts-integration in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. In their findings from a 3-year evaluation the program became “an effective agent of change at all levels: classroom, school, system, and state” and positively impacted attitudes and student learning.
The Right-Brian Initiative based in Portland, OR, goals are to “transform learning for all children through the arts, creativity, innovation and whole-brain thinking”. CAPE in Chicago focuses on “long-term committed, and sustained work” in schools, that pairs teaching artists with teachers to design, plan and experiment collaboratively. They evaluate their impact not only on teachers and students but on the artists they work with too.
One of the main objectives these programs have in common is their commitment to the student-learning experience, but also professional development for the teachers and administrators. Professional development is key to developing understanding and a common language about arts integration and to shift structures within the school culture and systems.
Collaborating with a Community Partner
As a community partner, it can be quite difficult to make headway and impact within a school system. Support from higher administration is essential to create a sustainable program. Their buy-in will assist in shifting the culture for the teachers, whose bandwidth’s are already limited.
However, in my experience, it was the early to mid-career teachers, the ones willing to take a risk and expand their teaching practice, that kept my program continuing year after year. Not only did they report the increase in engagement they witnessed in every collaborative project, but I also heard countless times how partnering together increased their joy of teaching. It provided a much-needed spark of creativity for a dry and repetitive curriculum.
If you are a teacher interested in working with a community partner don’t let a wary administrator be a roadblock! Reach out to the organization or artist, who very may well have experience in creating dynamic programs and partnerships. (Even if they don’t list it on their website.) In the state of Massachusetts, we have government grants to assist with artist/school partnerships. Receiving them helps me work with various schools multiple times a year.
It is challenging work with a lot of moving parts but rewarding in many ways. Years later, I still connect and reach out to teachers I collaborated with before, as a friend and colleague. In writing this article, I was compelled to message a former math teacher and remind them of the time we used grocery carts to transport mixed media sculptures of planets, rolling haphazardly down the streets of East Cambridge. Both laughing, she responded, “if we had simply walked or driven them, there would be no memory.” Creativity comes in many forms.