Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday December 11th, 2014, 5:08pm

Strides Being Made In Improving CPS Arts Education, But Challenges Still Remain

The "state of the arts" in the Chicago Public Schools district has improved over the past two academic years, but there remains much work ahead to ensure all students have access to quality arts instruction, according to a recent report by Ingenuity Inc., a Chicago-based arts education advocacy organization.

For the report issued last week, Ingenuity examined the progress that's been made towards the goals and recommendations in the city's three-year CPS Arts Education Plan, which was approved by the Chicago Board of Education in November of 2012 and made arts a core subject.

Over the first two academic years under the plan, "growth was seen in almost all categories of arts instruction, including minutes of weekly instruction, staffing, arts integration and professional development, and number of arts partnerships," the report reads.

On the heels of the report's release, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS officials announced  a $10 million investment in arts education for the 2015-2016 academic year to help schools meet the Arts Education Plan.

"Our children cannot wait for the arts, which is why despite these difficult fiscal times, we are committed to ensuring every single child has access to the arts as part of a 21st century education," CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a statement. "We will continue to invest in strengthening arts programs to nuture our next generation of innovators and creative thinkers."

Ingenuity's findings are based on information from the 585 schools, representing 88 percent of the district, that fully participated in the "Creative Schools Certification" survey for the 2013-2014 academic year. The survey is part of the Creative Schools Initiative, a voluntary program designed to help implement the Arts Education Plan and track growth in arts instruction. Participation in the Initiative is up from 57 percent in the 2012-2013 school year. 

Sixty-five percent of participating schools last year were classified as either 'Strong' or 'Excelling' in the arts, compared to 52 percent one year earlier.

Among other key findings, 94 percent of CPS schools analyzed for the report had an arts instructor last year. However, only 55 percent of schools met the district's recommended ratio of 1 arts instructor to 350 students or less. 

"You can note a little bit of progress, but it just shows how substandard things were before when the ratio was 1 arts instructor for 750 students," said Wendy Katten, director of the Raise Your Hand education coalition. "That was the old goal. And that was low, so moving it up a little bit, making some progress, is good, but it's far from what kids should have."

Last year, meanwhile, 47 percent of elementary schools offered the recommended 120 minutes of weekly arts instruction. That's up from the 2012-2013 academic year, when 40 percent of elementary schools met that target. District wide, the average kindergarten through eighth grade CPS student currently receives roughly 100 minutes of weekly arts instruction, Ingenuity found.

"There's a whole lot of work to be done before we can say kids across CPS have exposure to an adequate arts curriculum," Katten stressed. "They did move from 40 [percent] to 47 percent, and that's good. But at that rate, it's going to take a long time ... So we're not close to closing that gap."

The report found that six percent of schools do not have an arts teacher, and "equitable distribution of instructors remains a significant challenge." Moreover, nearly "24,000 CPS students received little or no arts instruction" in the 2013-2014 academic year, according to Ingenuity.

"We're in the middle of this work, not the end of this work. And I think everybody recognizes that, but the progress is good," said Ingenuity's Executive Director Paul Sznewajs. "Compared to other major urban school districts like New York or Los Angeles, the starting point for this work here in Chicago is at a higher level than those other major urban school districts, and we think with the Creative Schools Initiative, the pieces are in place to start closing those gaps, and that's really what we're focusing on."

Sznewajs added that the overall "direction that this work is heading in is tremendously positive."

In releasing its report, Ingenuity also announced that 100 CPS schools will be awarded $1 million in total grants this academic year to boost arts programming. The awards come from the Creative Schools Fund, an arts education grant making partnership between Ingenuity and the school district.

"This year, we've doubled the investments into the school system," Sznewajs said of the grants, which are separate from the $10 million investment for next year announced by Emanuel and CPS. "We're giving $1 million to 100 schools for teacher design programs to expand and provide and augment arts instruction in the classroom."

Although there has been overall progress on the arts education front, the report notes that the ongoing "public/private effort" to expand CPS arts instruction is "filled with challenges."

"Unless the district and the broader philanthropic and cultural sectors address some systemic needs, including (1) higher numbers of credentialed arts instructors, (2) equitable access to those instructors for all students, and (3) sustained and consistent funding for the arts in all schools--progress may be fleeting," the report says.

What needs to be done next, Sznewajs said, "is continue to drive progress forward."

"We're encouraged by what we see here, and the goal now is to not let up," he stressed. "This is about making sure that every child in every grade in every CPS school can expect to have the arts be part of their education, and that's the goal."

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