The Arts as Champions of Change in Our Schools

Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.

I am honored to be a White House Champion of Change – I am both humbled and inspired by my fellow Arts Education Champions, who are all working with passion and persistence to improve the lives of children everyday across our country.  I applaud President Obama for taking a leadership role in acknowledging the power of the arts to transform communities, to improve education and to drive our economy.  I truly appreciated the opportunity to participate in a lively exchange of ideas with members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and The Creative Coalition, and staff from the US Department of Education, the Arts Education Partnership, and Americans for the Arts during our recent round-table discussion.  

My work at CAPE – Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education – is rooted in the belief that the arts can play a leading role in transforming education, particularly for students who have been left behind by traditional schools. In fulfilling our  organization’s mission to increase student success through arts driven education, we have inspired change in different ways: 

1) The arts can serve as a catalyst for change:  The status quo in our country is that great schools provide great arts programming and struggling schools do not.  This is particularly true in urban centers like Chicago, where schools are forced to focus on reading and math to the detriment of other subject areas.  This situation frustrates and bores students, and alienates teachers.  CAPE is changing this status quo by working with classroom teachers to integrate the arts across the curriculum – an approach that re-engages students in learning and empowers teachers to think critically and creatively about their approach to working with struggling students.

2) Arts educators can serve as leaders in change:  Most arts educators, particularly in elementary schools, only work with students when classroom teachers have lunch or have planning periods.  This approach leads to arts instruction that is disconnected from the classroom, and arts teachers who are isolated from the rest of the faculty.  Working with CAPE and the Chicago Public Schools, pioneering arts teachers have re-imagined their roles as arts educators.  They now serve as leaders within their schools’ instructional planning teams, collaborators with classroom teachers on integrated arts projects, and facilitators of arts-based community-engagement strategies.  This leveraged role for arts teachers has created a more meaningful and strategic role for the arts across the entire school. 

3) Arts organizations and teaching artists are agents of change: In most communities, artists are ready, willing, and able to serve students, but they are often only brought into schools to fill in programming gaps and are viewed as vended services to students.  In Chicago, CAPE supports the work of about 70 teaching artists, across 130 schools, who collaborate with arts teachers and classroom teachers to plan instruction and to inspire new approaches to teaching and learning.  These teaching artists are skilled professional artists who serve as creative catalysts– bringing new artistic ideas, new teaching strategies, and new creative perspectives to the classroom.  

As a Champion of Change, I look forward with a collaborative spirit and open heart as we continue to learn from, to improve, and to share our work.  Providing a high-quality education for all children should be a top priority for every American.  I’m grateful everyday to the CAPE board, staff, researchers, artists, teachers, principals, parents, and students for their unending dedication to this goal.

Amy Rasmussen is the Executive Director of the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education.

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