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Teaching Artists Spark Imaginations—and So Much More

How a few Boys & Girls Clubs in the Midwest have enlisted professional artists to bring exemplary arts instruction to disadvantaged youth

It’s late afternoon on a cool autumn day at the Don & Sallie Davis Boys & Girls Club on Milwaukee’s South Side, and Cedric Gardner is taking charge. Under his direction, a group of young dancers has moved the school desks—usually reserved for journaling and self-reflection—into the center of the dance studio to give it the feeling of a classroom for a seated dance sequence. Think hip-hop meets homeroom. “Look up when your hands hit the desk,” Gardner instructs the group, shutting off the music to demonstrate how those seated should work their arms and upper bodies—it is not easy to dance when you’re sitting behind a desk.

The dancers mirror his movements, and then the soundtrack cues again, backing the sequence that will be featured in a Pepsi-sponsored video to promote recycling in schools through an organization called We Are Teachers. “This time, let’s see you all smiling, too,” Gardner shouts above the clapping beat. Hands slap down on the desks, shuffling plastic cups as torsos energetically sway. Every face is beaming. A few seconds in, one of the smaller boys pops up on top of the desks and the seated dancers help guide him through to the front. Amid high fives and hip bumps, others toss up empty plastic water bottles that will eventually get scooped into cardboard recycle bins. The message: Working together we can clean up our classroom and help save the planet.

“I never say no to a performance, because I want the kids to have the experience of performing,” says Gardner, whose Davis Dancers, as the students are known, are likely to participate in two dozen or so gigs over the course of a year. “The more they perform, the more confident they become.” Confidence is a big part of what Gardner seeks to impart to his budding dancers at Davis, where together they’re part of an unusual effort to see how a youth-serving organization with broad reach into underserved communities can provide high-quality arts to young people. Davis is one of six Boys & Girls Clubs sites across Milwaukee, Green Bay, Wis., and St. Cloud, Minn., that are participating in the first phase of the effort, called the Youth Arts Initiative (YAI). With support from The Wallace Foundation, YAI launched in 2014 to develop a model for offering first rate instruction in the arts—dance, visual arts, video, music, digital arts and fashion design—to tweens and teens.

The initiative calls for sites to adopt, or appropriately adapt, 10 principles of high-quality youth arts programming identified by researchers in a study of exemplary afterschool arts programs—from establishing a culture of high expectations to engaging local stakeholders to equipping dedicated studio spaces with the latest tools and technologies. Number one on the list of principles is the conviction that instructors should be professional working artists who are willing to carry out the other nine principles while also addressing the day-to-day needs of youth in the club—whether that means teaching a difficult painting technique, mediating a preteen squabble, planning a video shoot or simply being a thoughtful mentor. “Professional practicing artists hold the key to youth engagement in [out-of-schooltime] arts programs,” the researchers Denise Montgomery, Peter Rogovin and Nero Persaud write in their study, Something to Say: Success Principles for Afterschool Arts Programs From Urban Youth and Other Experts. “Young people are drawn to the artists’ knowledge of technique, their real-world experiences in the arts and their energy and creativity.” Because teaching artists are so pivotal to implementing YAI’s efforts, we visited the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee (BGCGM) last fall to talk to staff members, parents, youth and a couple of artists themselves. They gave insight on the central role that teaching artists play and shared some of the lessons they’re learning about how to run effective arts programming in a large organization.

“Almost 100 percent of our kids are free and reduced lunch,” says Melinda Wyant Jansen, chief academic officer at BGCGM, citing a common indicator of underprivileged schoolchildren or those living in poverty. “And almost 100 percent are people of color. You can read tons of stuff about the kind of problems they face and the kind of gaps they have. All of the things I can provide for my kids as a parent, just by writing checks, these kids mostly don’t have.” BGCGM works to make up for that opportunity gap, charging its young members just $5 a year to participate in an array of sports, recreation, wellness classes, academics, community service and other services. Programs to familiarize kids with art are offered at all 51 sites with the hope that an arts encounter will kindle an interest in pursuing further classes or will simply make the idea of art less rarified, according to Wyant Jansen. “Most of our programming is at the exposure level, letting the kids dip their toes in the water and get some experience of the arts,” she says.

As Gardner’s dancers illustrate, the kids in YAI have taken a giant step beyond just dipping their toes. And guiding them to that advanced level required committed thinking and planning to find the instructors who could help them make the leap. Staff at all three YAI pilot locations quickly confirmed that teachers needed a number of qualifications beyond merely being good artists, according to Raising the Barre & Stretching the Canvas, a report that examines the early days of the initiative. Would-be instructors who had never developed an interest in arts education and those who could not manage a classroom or lacked cultural competencies struggled to be effective teaching artists, and a few ultimately left YAI. “There are youth-development skills needed when working with kids that some of our artists just didn’t have, so it was a bit of trial and error at first,” says Lisa Manvilla, a senior area director who oversees 10 clubs on the South Side of Milwaukee. A self-described club kid who has been working at BGCGM on and off for roughly 25 years and with YAI from its earliest days, Manvilla recalls the dance classes she took growing up. The same teacher—“a typical ballet type,” she says—taught every year and always in the same sequences, in contrast to what she has observed in Gardner’s work with the kids. “When you walk into a class with Cedric, the first thing you see is he’s young, he’s got lots of energy and lots of stories about a project he just did or who he’s been working with in his own life,” Manvilla says. Also, she adds, he truly loves the kids. “You can’t fake that. Our kids know when you’re faking it.”

Gardner’s class encapsulates a key tenet of Principle One, according to Something to Say findings: Teaching artists must have not only expertise but also youth-development experience—or a strong desire to work with kids and learn about youth development. In addition to finding artists in this mold, YAI organizers had to figure out how to make the clubs hospitable to serious engagement with the arts. This was the source of some initial friction, according to survey and focus-group data from Raising the Barre. After all, the 10 principles came from small standalone afterschool arts programs. How best to incorporate them into multidisciplinary clubs with broad offerings, where the youth had less exposure to and experience with the arts, was unknown. Staff members throughout the YAI pilot sites reported tensions surfacing almost immediately from other programs and youth mentors. Typically, they were not paid as much as the artists, did not receive the same level of professional development (Principle One) and did not receive the resources the arts classes had, like a dedicated and well-equipped space (Principle Three).

To alleviate some of the tension, staff members in Milwaukee sought to integrate the YAI artists into club culture, ensuring they attended meetings with other staff and made an effort to pitch in on larger club projects so they would become part of the team. YAI staff also learned to bridge the cultural divide through the art itself. “We started putting up the pieces the kids did throughout the building and inviting people to see the shows,” says La’Ketta Caldwell, director of the arts for BGCGM. When other staff and visitors saw the quality of the art and could then hear the kids themselves speaking about it, Caldwell says, a switch clicked and the 10 Principles began to make sense. Raising the Barre findings, too, confirm that tensions began to dissipate when people saw what researchers cited as the “value of professional frontline content experts, ample and updated equipment and supplies, and dedicated youth-friendly space.” Still, there is no doubt that the infusion of YAI funds allowed for—and in some cases required—more in-depth processes and procedures than the clubs previously had. In contrast to other programming, YAI involved the kids in determining what type of art they would offer at each site (youth input—Principle Seven). At Davis, one group of kids chose mural arts, whereas a group at the other site chose video production, for example. Once the clubs decided what they would teach where, they arranged for kids to help interview potential teaching artists and contribute to curriculum development. The hands-on involvement helped the young participants feel ownership over the program and was so instrumental to the program’s success that club leaders across all three programs said they planned to expand youth-input strategies beyond their arts programming.

Full Report:

Copyright © 2018 The Wallace Foundation All rights reserved Stories From the Field is an occasional series offering on-the-spot reports about work that The Wallace Foundation is supporting or issues of interest to the foundation. To download this and other publications written or commissioned by Wallace, visit the Knowledge Center at This article references the following publications that are available free of charge at Something to Say: Success Principles for Afterschool Arts Programs From Urban Youth and Other Experts Raising the Barre and Stretching the Canvas: Implementing High Quality Arts Programming in a National Youth Serving Organization Written by Lauren Sanders Photos by Claire Holt Design by José Moreno

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