Be Cool. Stay in School: Why media arts programs could save Chicago public education–and why they won’t

Tristan Tucker, by Avery Bell

In 2006, Tristan Tucker was attending summer school at Wells High School on Chicago’s West Side. Wells could stand in for any embattled urban public school in the country. Ninety-three percent of the student body is either Latino or black, and an alarming eighty-eight percent are classified as low-income. In 2006, the daily attendance rate was only seventy-seven percent; thirty-six percent of students went absent without leave during the school year. The most troubling number of all comes from the most notorious yardstick in modern education: test scores. According to data gathered for the last school year, a mere forty percent of Wells students made expected gains on standardized tests.

Tucker, now 18, might have been on his way to being counted among those statistics until he found Street-Level Youth Media through his brother Revo. Street-Level Youth Media is a non-profit based in West Town that seeks to train and encourage young people in media arts, including web design and audiovisual production. While the stated goal of the organization sounds lofty–“Street-Level’s young people address community issues, access advanced communication technology, and gain inclusion in our information-based society”–Street-Level’s real impact can be seen at the level of the everyday: preparing students for life beyond high school.

That responsibility has traditionally fallen to high schools themselves, but in addition to the number of problems already plaguing public schools nationwide–the lack of funding and the stringent demands of the No Child Left Behind era–another is that standard curricula have not engaged students like Tucker, whose passions lie in creating rather than studying. For Tucker, that passion became a distraction. “When I first started messing with a beat-making program without any help, it was affecting my schoolwork. I went straight home, got on the computer, tried make beats, did no homework,” he says. After arriving at Street-Level in 2006 and familiarizing himself with the staff and students, Tucker enrolled in an audio production program. “That wasn’t when I first started doing music, but it made me succeed more in my music,” Tucker says. “[Instructor] Christopher Lee–when I started getting more into the audio program–he showed me more, new ways of how to use sound programs to produce music, make beats, and stuff, and also showed me how to use the equipment for studios.” Now, Tucker has ingratiated himself with Rap-A-Lot Records, started to copyright his lyrics, songs, and beats, and is set to perform May 30 at the House of Blues. Perhaps more importantly, he will graduate from high school this spring. Tucker adds, “When I came to Street-Level, that’s when I learned how to balance music and school at the same time.”

Stories like Tucker’s are as commonplace as they are curious. Chicago schoolteacher Will Okun, writing in a blog for the New York Times, says, “In most communities, students attend school every day because they are convinced that educational achievement is essential to their future success. For many unfortunate reasons, however, this expectation does not exist for most low-income students in Chicago and other urban areas. How do we improve attendance at low-income schools where the current incentive of ‘a better future’ is not sufficient?” For Okun, the answer takes the form of “one class,” which, as Okun’s student Mark Hill tells him, “can make the difference. I know people who come to school just because they are involved in a sport or a certain extracurricular program or they have one great class that they are interested in.” Often, that one class is a media or arts class. Okun has seen the comparative results in his own experience. His English class averaged a seventy-percent attendance rate; his photography class boasted attendance around ninety percent.

These classes, including supplemental ones provided by non-profits like Street-Level, don’t only keep kids in schools. They are personally transformative as well, directing students toward new goals. “Ninety percent of the kids [in our programs] we surveyed said that because of our program, they decided to go on to college,” says Denise Zaccardi, executive director of the Community TV Network (CTVN), on a phone call. CTVN airs the program “Hard Cover,” written, directed, and produced exclusively by Chicago teenagers. The show, which produces various genres of television programming from public service announcements to educational spots to documentaries, has won numerous awards for its content. Students who participate come from all over the city, where CTVN hosts video-producing classes after school. At alternative high schools for students who have been expelled or previously dropped out where it has youth programs, CTVN didn’t even have to survey students about how “Hard Cover” had changed their lives. “They just told us,” Zaccardi says.

In addition, there is the unavoidable fact that arts education enhances school performance. In a 2001 study, University of New Mexico researcher Karen DeMoss used as her starting point, based on accumulated evidence, the fact that “arts education in its various forms–from traditional art classes to extracurricular arts activities, from music to drama to visual arts–consistently associates with higher individual achievement.” A 1999 evaluation of Chicago schools implementing programs based on model curricula provided by Chicago Arts Partners in Education (CAPE) showed growth along several different measures of student achievement, including test scores for reading and math and the acquisition of life and work skills.

Then there are the intangible benefits of arts education. Sojn Boothroyd, the enthusiastic, bespectacled program director for Street-Level Youth Media, has borne witness to arts education’s lasting influence. “I’ve been involved in arts education for about fourteen years, and I worked for a long time as a teaching artist. And time and time again, I would meet with a youth who would tell me that they couldn’t do something. They were scared to try something new, scared to take that risk.” But once given the proper environment and encouragement, Boothroyd says, “You watch them shift in their ability to believe in themselves, and believe in what’s possible in their lives. And I see that resonate out into the rest of their life in different capacities. And that impact–of them going into something, trying something new, taking a risk, thinking independently and being creative–totally resonates in their work in school.”

Given the advantages of media arts education–the improved engagement, increased attendance, and newfound desires to move onward and upward, in addition to the boggling numbers that support each of these points–why isn’t arts education given more shrift in school curricula? For Denise Zaccardi, the need for media education seems self-evident: “Public schools should have a video program in every school. Kids love the medium, and, you know, their world is on video. For them, video equals the world, so every school should have it.” After a pause and a sigh, she adds, “But schools don’t even have biology labs that are up-to-date. Will Chicago Public Schools see it as a core? I doubt it; everyone is so worried about reading and math that they can’t divert resources.” Her last comment sounds wistful. “But I wish they would! I would love to work in more schools, all the schools.”

Zaccardi highlights the biggest problems facing a comprehensive implementation of arts education in schools. The first is a matter of the policy environment and bald fact. Urban students are nowhere near competitive in areas–especially reading and math–that are deemed essential by traditional pedagogy and emphasized under the testing regimen of No Child Left Behind. The arts speak little to the most pressing fears and concerns of school administrators, especially test scores. The second–and absolutely unavoidable–reason is money. Chicago Public Schools, which were not reached for comment on this story, are already a projected $180 million in debt for the current school year.

Given these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, supplemental arts and media education will have to continue to be provided by organizations like Street-Level and CTVN. The prospect is heartening, given each organization’s successes, but it is not a perfect integration of the arts into Chicago’s public school sphere. First, these opportunities are still not guaranteed to all students in all schools. Even when you get past issues of students’ home situations and economic situations, there is still the very real problem of geography. Not all students have the time or resources to get to where CTVN and Street-Level have programs. Then there are the necessary limits that all non-profits must face. “I think that–particularly with non-profits–there are always inherent challenges,” Sojn Boothroyd says. “There’s always the constant of wanting to provide as much as you can with the fact that you’re a non-profit, of trying to get the necessary funding to do more.” Yet without arts media education, and Street-Level in particular, there would be fewer stories like Randall Watkins’s.

Watkins, 19 years old, is friend and foil to Tristan Tucker. While Tucker pursues music production with an eye toward making it his life, Watkins treats it as a fortifying steppingstone to other dreams. Soft-spoken and taciturn, Watkins is a student first, and didn’t have problems balancing “school, music, and girls.” He goes to Westwood College–in his first year after graduating from Wells–and wants to ride his education to a career with the FBI. “Most of the people at school just now found out I rap, and everybody wants to hook up with me and come to Street-Level and do music,” Watkins says. He adds, “My music has helped me in school by, you know, forcing me to write and read a whole lot of stuff: reading RedEye and writing verses and music about the world and things that inspire me in the paper.” Such engagement is the greatest gift any school could hope to bestow on its students. Watkins got it from making music.