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Free Arts Education Helps Metro Atlanta Kids Succeed in School and in Life

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By Ariel Fristoe, Co-Artistic Director, Out of Hand Theater
Every child should have the opportunity to succeed, but if you’re born in Metro Atlanta, your chances of escaping from poverty are not good; in fact, they’re close to the worst in the nation. This fall, at Atlanta Regional Commission’s Regional Leadership Institute, I learned that Metro Atlanta has the country’s second lowest economic mobility rate—the odds of a kid from a low-income family making it out of poverty. I run an arts organization, so can anything I do have any meaningful impact for our region’s poorest kids?
Arts education has declined over the past decades, and, according to the U.S. Department of Education, poor, inner-city schools bear a disproportionate share of the losses. About one in five elementary schools offered dance or theatre a decade ago. Today just one in twenty-five elementary schools offers theatre or dance, and the arts opportunity gap is widest for children in high-poverty schools. Studies show children from low-income families are consistently less likely to be involved in the arts, and Black and Hispanic students have less than half the access to arts education of their White peers.
Why does this matter? It matters because arts education impacts academic performance, particularly for students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. A 2012 report from the National Endowment for the Arts showed that, by nearly every indicator studied, a student from a low-income background with a high-arts educational experience significantly outperformed peers from a low-arts, low-income background, closing the gap that often appears between low-income students and their more advantaged peers. Low-income students who had arts-rich experiences were five times more likely to graduate from high school than low-income students without those experience, and more than three times as likely to earn a B.A.
At Out of Hand Theater, we serve children from low-income families through Creative Kids, our free in-school and after-school theater programs at Metro Atlanta schools with such high poverty rates that the cafeterias don’t accept money, and all students receive free breakfast and lunch. Our 8 to 15-week programs are designed to be fun theater training and much more: they are designed to develop creativity, collaboration, communication and confidence, the skills U.S. employers say are most essential for success today. Theater is a perfect vehicle for building these skills, since creativity, collaboration, communication and confidence are the very skills necessary for theater. Creative Kids started as one program at Hope-Hill Elementary in 2015, but now serves 6 schools and over 200 students a year.
And that’s just Out of Hand! Alliance Theatre and True Colors Theatre Company provide extensive residencies in schools, where teaching artists work with classroom teachers on art-integrated learning targeting literacy and reading comprehension. The Alliance’s in-depth program assessments show that instructional strategies integrating drama enhanced communication and academic achievement in low-income kindergarteners, and that students showed literacy skills gains of almost one whole level of competence. And then there’s Synchronicity’s Playmaking for Girls, empowering refugee girls and young women in the juvenile justice system through theater.
Atlanta nonprofits also provide first rate music and dance education to at-risk kids. Atlanta Music Project provides intensive, free music education to 300 underserved youth at rec centers and schools in their neighborhoods each year, and Moving in the Spirit integrates high-quality dance instruction with performance, leadership and mentor opportunities, impacting 250 children and teens each year.
These are just some of the examples of how Atlanta artists and arts organizations are working to lift up our community’s kids, with each organization contributing its own programs and point of view. Creative Kids serves Out of Hand Theater’s mission to build community and promote social justice through art. One thing, I believe, we have in common, and that is our dedication to help build a world where, in the words of the inimitable Ann Cramer, “every child grows up safe, healthy, educated, connected and employable.”


Featured photo: Creative Kids taken by Brooke Hanna Swanson.

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