Arts Corps is not just about arts education.

The following is the address Arts Corps’ Executive Director Elizabeth Whitford delivered at the 2012 La Festa del Arte on March 29th at the Triple Door in Seattle.  

Arts Corps is not just about arts education. As it turns out, our work increasingly sits at the heart of a major tension in education—namely, a profound disagreement about what it will take to achieve equity in education.


Today we hear a lot of talk about the achievement gap. The achievement gap generally refers to the lower academic performance of youth of color and youth from low-income communities as compared to their middle income and white peers on standardized high stakes tests in math and reading. This disparity is real, and most definitely points to a grave concern about equity in education.


It is ironic, however, that the policy efforts that seek to address this achievement gap with a targeted focus on test score improvement, such as those that have dominated education reform efforts for the past 40 years and encoded in federal and local education policy, often manage to increase inequality in education.


Let me give you an example. I have a five-year-old son who is excited, and a little nervous, to start Kindergarten next year.


The school to which he is currently assigned–our neighborhood school–is situated in a low-income neighborhood in Southeast Seattle. The vast majority of students at this school come from low-income families, and they represent a diverse mix of racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. His school’s test scores are low, and falling, especially for those students from low-income families.


I was the only parent to show up to the Kindergarten tour this month. I was toured around the school by a generous and enthusiastic volunteer coordinator. It was a nice building, the students seemed quiet and well-behaved, the teachers kind, and the principal passionate about improving the school. I learned that the kids have only one 20-minute recess after lunch. They have no music or arts teacher. They have no science or environmental educator. Then I went to visit the after-school program. I asked them if it was play-based after school. “No,” they said. “We align with the curriculum. Kids do one hour of homework time after school, and then we do math and literacy activities. They get a short break to go outside.” I imagine my squiggly, enthusiastic, high-energy boy in this school. I imagine him focused on math and reading all day, 9-5 pm, with two short breaks for unstructured play.


So I picked up the phone and called my friend whose child attends a public school in a middle-income neighborhood of lower Magnolia. At this school, every student gets music class two times each week, 90 minutes of physical education per week and three recesses per day. Their PTA raises money to support visual arts and dance residencies and enriching after school programs. Despite this competition for classroom time, their low-income students’ test scores in math and reading increased far above the district average last year.


The situation at my neighborhood school is entirely related to the policies seeking to address the achievement gap. Through Title 1, our school actually has more per student funding than my friend’s school—but that funding is entirely constrained to strategies seen as most directly related to improving student performance on math and reading test scores. The after school program is likewise informed by similar funding pressures.


I think this example begs a new way of looking at this problem. We need to reframe the conversation to be focused on the opportunity gap rather than on the achievement gap. Because if all kids had equal opportunity in education, if all kids had a more equal education—with the same access to the rich learning environments we offer kids in higher income neighborhoods—we would have more equal outcomes for kids.


This is the work we are engaged in, and that the impact we are demonstrating.


National research has shown that low-income students at arts-rich high schools are more likely to graduate from high school and persist through college. Our own research has shown that students highly involved in Arts Corps come to school more often and perform better on the state math and reading tests.


This happens because our classes increase students’ critical and creative thinking skills, their persistence, and their discovery of their capacity to learn and grow their ability through effort. And it is these learning behaviors and 21st Century skills related to everyday performance that turn out to be more predictive of academic and life success than the high-stakes performance measured in our state’s standardized tests.


And we’re pushing further. Last year I stood here before you all and told you that we were coming through this economic downturn leaner but stronger and ambitiously moving forward. And we have done just that, launching new initiatives and drawing new investments that have brought our budget to $1 Million for the first time in our history.


We are partnering with The Road Map Project—a region-wide collective impact effort focused on increasing the number of students ‘on track’ to graduate from college or earn a career credential—to develop common ways of measuring growth in these key learning behaviors and 21st C skills—broadening the conversation beyond test scores. And we have been contracted by Seattle Public Schools to develop tools that district arts teachers can use to assess for student learning in these same key developmental areas.


Finally, I’m excited to announce today that next school year we launch the Creative Schools Initiative. Through this exciting initiative made possible by visionary gifts from the Paul G. Allen Foundation, J.P. Morgan Chase and Seattle’s own Dave Matthews, Arts Corps will be demonstrating a model for creativity-infused middle schools—with resident teaching artists teaching after school and working alongside language arts and social studies teachers in the school day to lead arts-based projects that develop students’ creative capacities and learning in both subject areas. We will carefully evaluate the impacts of this program on students’ creative capacities, learning behaviors and academic performance and share it as a model for creativity-rich schools.


None of these initiatives would have been possible without your support, and we are counting on you tonight to help us move them forward. We’ve been thrust into a clear leadership role on this vital educational issue. We’re ready, and because of you all tonight, we will have the capacity. Thank you for investing in our leadership.



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Inside the Storage Studio World Premiere

Do you ever wonder …
How do teaching artists help unlock creativity in young people?
What transformation does Arts Corps help make happen?
What happens behind the scenes?

Find out in Arts Corps new vlog series – Inside the Storage Studio.

Teaching Artist & Arts Corps Faculty Development Manager Eduardo Mendonça introduces the Storage Studio.


Eduardo talks about how he helps young people unlock their creativity.

Stay tuned for more inspirational stories, insights and vlogs!

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Finding Creative Spirit in Crisis

This story is from Arts Corps’ new magazine and annual report. Read all the articles here.

The youth at Spruce Street Secure Crisis Residential Center all have one thing in common – they are in crisis. Youth are brought to the center by police when they are found as a runaway or are in dangerous circumstances. Some are fleeing a home of domestic violence. Some are in gangs. Some are bouncing around the foster care system. Some are battling mental illness.

They are all in crisis.

Their stay at Spruce Street ranges from 1-2 weeks. To keep everyone safe, the youth – ages 12-17 – are given facility clothing upon arrival and are required to hand over all of their belongings. Aside from special trips, they are kept in a sort of lock down. Except instead of locks on the outside of their bedroom doors to keep them in, they have locks on the inside to keep people out and keep themselves safe (staff all have keys).

Services are intensive – counseling, behavior modification, coping skills, self-awareness, group therapy, substance abuse screening. The hope is that once they return to the outside world, they are better equipped to begin creating their own stability and imagine different possibilities.Arts Corps has been a part of Spruce Street’s program since 2006. It’s unlike any of our other sites. Instead of building relationships with students over a 16-week quarter, teaching artists at Spruce Street see each youth once or twice at the most. During that short and intensive time, they have to act fast, read the youth and determine how to help them reach into themselves and express something meaningful. Often they are confronted with hostility, indifference or verbal attacks. But the teaching artists we send in are compassionate and highly skilled in creating safe spaces for youth in crisis to learn a different way, even if just for one moment. Sometimes that moment carries with them.

artwork by a youth at Spruce Street

Spruce Street Youth Supervisor Jim Marsh tells a story about one young man who came through the facility. “He was hostile, very angry at his family. Vicky [Edmonds, Arts Corps teaching artist] came in and we did poetry and he wrote a poem about his family. It wasn’t the nicest poem but it was real. Later, we were sitting at a family meeting and all these adults were talking at him and about him. He referenced that poem to express how angry he was. Before, his anger was expressed with foul language and behavioral issues. He said writing that poem helped him get to how angry he really was. That was so powerful; he was finally able to articulate something that had been plaguing him for a long time.”

“I think about this a lot – this is a place where people go in crisis. How can art address that? We can explore the commonality of crisis. In that hour [of art] is a whole new world they become part of. They see other opportunities for their lives,” says Jim.

Arts Corps Teaching Artist Geoffrey Garza teaches visual art at Spruce Street. He is adept at reading the emotional vibe of the students, and Jim says Geoffrey has taught youth and staff alike that there are no mistakes. It’s all learning.

In a blog, Geoffrey tells the story about a particularly oppositional student at Spruce Street. He antagonized Geoffrey, threateningly circling around the art table. Geoffrey set out a piece of paper and the youth stood over it. “I want to throw paint on it,” he said. Geoffrey found tubes of paint and told him to go for it. For 45 intense minutes, the youth intensely sprayed, smeared and splattered paint across the paper, hands and body covered in paint, guttural noises accompanying every move. Geoffrey then showed him pictures of Dale Chilhuly using a broom to push color around, his feet covered in paint splatters. The youth studied it, said, “cool” and asked for another piece of paper.

A life-changing moment? We can never really know. But in that moment, that youth saw a totally different possibility. And he made it happen himself.

This year, Arts Corps will be taking the partnership with Spruce Street one step further, helping develop a framework to evaluate and measure the success of their programs. This work is part of Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program, of which Arts Corps is a national network member. It was the strength of Arts Corps’ programming in high-need community settings like Spruce Street that drew the attention of Carnegie Hall for this program.

With this national resource, Arts Corps’ goal and hope is to provide the Spruce Street staff with an assessment tool to measure the impact of arts programs in their facility.

Lana Crawford, executive director of Spruce Street, says she knows there is an impact, but it’s often hard to know how much. “We can’t put the whole fire out, but we can start,” says Lana. “Art is key. Art is huge in helping them express themselves.”

An assessment tool will help them – and Arts Corps – understand what they intuitively already know: somehow, in some way, they are making an impact.

“We’re trying to create a safe space for these kids. A space where no one is hurting them, no one is threatening them, no one is putting them down. A lot of them have never had that. That’s a big deal. It’s to get them stabilized and thinking about what’s going on in their life and what they are going to do,” says Jim.

Jim says watching Arts Corps teaching artists at Spruce Street has taught him about how to connect to the youth and help them see their own strengths and talents.

“I love it when the kids find their voices. Some days I tell the kids, ‘Anything you want to say to me, you have to do in a poem.’ And then they find their creative spirit.”

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Creative Practice for Renewal

I am about to begin my 12th year of teaching “creative practice” with Arts Corps. When beginning a new year, I enter a period of reflection that begins with looking back on my journey as a student, revisiting the importance of teaching and the relationship that teachers delicately hold with their students, and the significant role of the artist in the educational system. I was child of a military family, sometimes attending three different schools in one year. I discovered from my nomadic education the necessity and crucial role of creative learning led by ‘creative’s.’ I remember learning the most under their tutelage. They kept me engaged and curious about education and this had a powerful affect on my life’s choices and current path. I remember the teachers who inspired curiosity, who questioned the norm and encouraged me to do the same. They pushed me out of my comfort zones to see and to seek a better understanding of what life holds from many perspectives and encouraged me to discover solutions that would benefit the whole.

My work with Arts Corps as a teaching artist and former faculty development manager has pushed me in the same way. Being involved in the development and implementation of the Creative Habits of Mind framework—Imagining Possibilities, Courage and Risk taking, Critical Thinking, Persistence and Discipline, Reflection—I have come to understand on a deep level how the habits have impacted the way I teach and how I live my life. I have learned that creativity is best supported through practice and the habits that are formed through this practice. During the tenure of Arts Corps founder Lisa Fitzhugh, and through the diligent work with the Arts Corps’ team, I developed both an intellectual and an experiential understanding of why these habits are necessary for all of us. These habits are not just for students learning about art or for arts organizations developing effective assessment and evaluation strategies to prove their reason for being. These creative habits are necessary for everyone. With daily practice these habits become tools for living a meaningful life and a practice that supports authentic being!

Since moving on from my position as faculty development manager at Arts Corps, I have continued on with this work, exploring the meaning and application of creative practice with Creative Ground, a new partnership formed with Lisa Fitzhugh and Sarah Bicknell. Creative Ground works with individuals and organizations, using creative practice as a tool to for change and transformation to support collaboration through authentic leadership. Creative Ground has added three more habits to Arts Corps’ five, which include, Present moment awareness, Observation of the Natural World/ Technology Hiatus and Tolerance for ambiguity/Trust. We have found when an individual intentionally integrates creative practice into their daily lives, they are better equipped to effectively address the accelerated pace of change and chaos we are experiencing in the world.

If you are interested in finding out more about creative practice, I invite you to come attend Creative Ground’s, Creative Practice for Renewal and Authentic Leadership for Non-Profit Organizations, happening on October 21st and 22nd at the Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island. You will come away revitalized, renewed and fortified with creative tools that you can implement on your return.

For more information you can contact me at or go to


Lauren Atkinson
Teaching Artist

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