More Than a Number: The Role of the Arts in Youth Development Programs

By Jennifer Oliver, TASC Advisor

When a potential supporter for creative youth development approaches me, one of the first things I tell them is to look at the numbers. This model works. Students who participate in rigorous, arts-based after school programs perform better in school and have higher graduation rates than that of their peers who do not participate in the arts. I cite programs such as The Wooden Floor in Santa Ana, Say Si in San Antonio, ARTS in San Diego – the results are impressive. It is at this moment that I have their attention. I have connected my work to something they value: academic success.

As someone who has worked in the arts for my entire career, having people outside of the arts connect with what I do is addicting. For years I struggled with articulating the benefit of an arts education, and with one quick statistic, I have their support. Ironically, this addiction to being understood has left me feeling misunderstood.

On one hand, I have defined my life path through the arts, and I believe strongly that developing young artists is of great value. Artistry is the heart of my work. Tapping into the arts offers a pathway for students to access their deepest and most authentic selves. On the other hand, while helping students improve their academic scores and increasing student graduation rates is a goal of my work, it is not the core value. It is a desirable outcome, but it does not totally define their value as individuals and should not define the value of my program.

My personal academic history involved a struggle to find my individual value. I was not a great student. I was terrible at memorization and had a fear or being put on the spot. When a teacher would call on me to give the “correct” answer to a question, I would freeze. My heart rate would speed up, my mind would go blank, and I would have nothing to say. Tests were worse. I would leave many answers blank and exit the room feeling flawed. In fact, for much of my youth I truly believed I was just, “not smart.” When a child’s value is measured by their GPA score and their overall achievement in academics, many talented, intelligent students are left feeling displaced.

It is our responsibility as youth leaders to help students strive for academic excellence, but know that academic achievement does not in totality define their strengths as individuals. This is why I choose to become a teaching artist and serve students through the arts.

In my history in creative youth development I have witnessed the impact dance has made on the lives of many of my students. I think often of one of my first students, Michael, who had a difficult time connecting to his peers and often landed in the school office for losing his temper. Michael chose to participate in my after school dance program and was by far my most artistically creative student. I celebrated his choices often and found that he had an ability to see and create work that was unlike anything I had seen from other students. Before class one day I saw Michael angrily chase one of the girls in my class for laughing at him. I quickly brought him outside and as he looked at me, anger still in his face, I expressed my confidence in him. I told him that if he could find a way to control and channel his energy through dancing, he could remain in my class. At our final performance I asked Michael to perform a solo that he had created in one of our choreography classes. On stage Michael was captivating. His mother approached me after the performance in tears. “This is the very first time I have seen Michael succeed at school. You made my son a star, and I will never forget this.”

I am currently developing a ten-year after-school creative dance curriculum for students in grades three through twelve. As students move through this program, I see them take ownership of dance in their lives, develop their own aesthetic, build an acute awareness of their body, experience and reflect on dance from other cultures, contemplate dance as a social change model, and strive for excellence through a contemporary, somatic, and ballet technique curriculum.

Not all of my students will go on to become professional dancers, and this is not my definition of success. Through this curriculum I hope to produce not only high school graduates, but citizens healthy in mind and body. Citizens with experience articulating their own values while being mindful of the values and diversity of their peers. Citizens who know how to lead while encouraging the people around them. Citizens who appreciate the beauty and brilliance of the natural world, knowing how to pause and listen to its wisdom. Citizens who can make difficult choices in order to create beauty. Artful citizens.

By moving away from determining success by graduation rates and academic scores, we put the child at the center of our work. By leading through the arts, we help students develop the habits of mind to find success in all of life’s circumstances. Building blocks as defined in recent research as the knowledge, the mindset, the values and the self-regulation ability necessary to become successful adults. By moving toward creating artful citizens, we make room for them to dance gracefully, with integrity into adulthood.

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In addition to being a member of the TASC Regional Advisory Council, Jennifer is the Artistic Director of A Step Beyond – a Creative Youth Development organization serving students through dance, academics, and social services.