Arts and Culture: The Creative Advantage
The Creative Advantage brings the power of arts education to Seattle students in under-resourced schools and communities
August 05, 2019
Story and photos by Naomi Ishisaka. Read this story and more in Volume 6 (pdf) of Seattle Foundation's Heart & Science magazine.
First graders Naomi,
Blaine and Iman (pictured
left to right) enjoy coloring
in Native totem designs
during art class.
At Seattle Public Schools’ Martin Luther King,
Jr. Elementary (MLK) this spring, 19 students
in Janice Nehren’s first grade class watch
with rapt attention as teaching artist Greg Thornton
shares Northwest Coast indigenous totems and their
After coloring in totem animals, the children draw their
“top totem,” to represent something unique to them and
their family, which varies from a soccer ball to the video
Thornton says the activity teaches children about
Native culture and gives them pride in themselves and
The work of Mr. Greg, as students fondly call him, is
visible everywhere at MLK in South Seattle. Students’
highly personal artwork adorns the hallways, from their
own vision of “Mount Rushmore” – featuring four people
they admire – to a collaborative, deconstructed version
of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” painting.
In another assignment inspired by Martin Luther
King, Jr., Thornton asked students to draw “What is
“What I saw is a huge sense of compassion for other
people and a sense of community among these young
people,” Thornton says. “You had young kids that weren't
only thinking about themselves but thinking about how
they could do things to make the world better. I had a lot
of kids that wanted to actually march with Martin Luther
King. [They] wanted to stop bullying.”
The Creative Advantage has been
implemented in 45 K-12 Seattle
Public Schools in the Central,
Southwest and Southeast regions.
By the end of the school year in
2019, it will increase to 61 schools
out of 102. A third party evaluator
found that evidence of 21st century
learning skills, including critical
thinking, creativity and persistence,
is 35% higher in Creative
Advantage classrooms than the
The Need for Arts Equity
These art-based learning strategies are at the core of
The Creative Advantage, the initiative that supports
Thornton’s work. The Creative Advantage is a
partnership between Seattle Public Schools, Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture, Seattle Foundation and more
than 90 community arts partners to work toward a goal
where all students have access to arts education.
While arts education was mandated by the state for all
students in 1993 and 2014, no funding was included,
leaving districts and less-resourced schools with a
requirement they had no way to pay for. The Creative
Advantage is a strategy to fill that gap.
Launched in 2013, the initiative will be in 61 of 102
schools by the end of the school year in 2019. Since
then, Seattle Public Schools has doubled the number
of elementary visual arts and music programs. Schools
in The Creative Advantage each receive $15,000 in
seed money to create or enhance arts partnerships
and professional development, plus other supports
and resources. The initiative launched with a focus
on schools with less access to the arts in Central,
Southwest and Southeast Seattle, and will eventually
expand to all schools.
Lara Davis, arts education manager for the Office of Arts
& Culture and a member of the initiative’s leadership team, says that arts access is predictable by race, family
income and home language. Correcting those inequities
is part of a larger movement toward education justice.
“We talk about creating equitable access for each and
every student to arts education and to creative learning
experiences. Young people who are engaged in arts
education develop lifelong skills or creative habits that
support them in their journey as students but also in the
rest of their life, in their careers and their communities,”
said Davis, who adds that arts curriculum can also keep
some in school who are at risk for leaving.
With the gains in the last five years, most Seattle Public
Schools now have some kind of arts programming, but
many schools rely on PTAs to enhance arts programs,
yielding dramatic disparities in funding. That means
some schools raise hundreds of thousands of dollars,
while others bring in a few thousand. “That doesn't mean
that those parents care any less,” Davis says. “It means
they don't have the time, energy perhaps, or resources
to participate. And of course those things run along the
lines of racial and economic barriers.”
Arts Develop 21st Century Skills
Seattle Foundation Chief Philanthropy Officer Fidelma
McGinn says that The Creative Advantage dovetails
with the Foundation’s commitment to racial equity and
economic inclusion, as well as its Healthy Community
Framework, which considers Arts & Culture and
Education crucial to a vibrant community.
“There's a very clear divide between a lack of resources
and being able to access a full and complete school
experience. So, The Creative Advantage is intentionally
targeted at under-resourced elementary, middle and high
schools, launched first in the Central District and now
replicating across the whole district,” she said.
MLK Elementary Principal Chris Thomas says that The
Creative Advantage’s benefits extend far beyond arts education. In addition to integrating teaching artist
Thornton into science, technology, engineering and math
programs, MLK uses arts education to build confidence
in writing and reading.
“If you say, ‘we're doing reading’ [students] might say,
‘Oh no, I don't do want to do that.’ But if you say, ‘Hey
we're doing this art project and part of it is writing about
[your own Mount Rushmore],’ then they're expressing
themselves,” Thomas says. “They're excited because
they just did this cool thing that they came up with.”
Gail Sehlhorst, visual and performing arts manager for
Seattle Public Schools, says the initiative also responds
to the needs and interests of students.
For example, when The Creative Advantage was in the
research phase, leaders learned that students wanted
more career-connected arts opportunities. They created
the Media Arts Seattle Skills Center to serve students
from across the district. “Students from any high school
take courses for half a day, five days a week, and are
immersed in graphic design, film, digital audio and
more,” Sehlhorst says.
The Creative Advantage also infuses 21st century skills,
including critical thinking, communication, collaboration,
creativity and perseverance into every child’s education.
Its 2018 progress report finds evidence of those skills
is 35 percent higher in Creative Advantage schools –
especially arts classrooms.
The benefits of integrating arts into a student’s overall
learning experience are “unequivocal,” says McGinn. “The
ability to engage in performing arts, theatre, reading and
literature exposes them to a whole other new body of
work and improves their overall literacy.”
New Avenues of Expression
Rainier Beach High School theatre
students Flora Saelor, Elijah Diaz and
Jessica Ta rehearse a scene from the
At Rainier Beach High School, students in Rachel
Street’s advanced theatre program, which receives
Creative Advantage support, are choreographing a
performance for preschool students. Using a broom and
sticks, they re-create the famous orphanage scene, “It’s
a Hard Knock Life,” from the musical “Annie.”
Alexis Jackson, a sophomore and president of the drama
club, says this is her happiest place. Expressing her
feelings through acting has increased her confidence
and helped with the rest of her schooling.
“When it comes to presentations or projects, being able
to work with other people or just talk in front of people,
you become a more creative person and more outgoing
or confident when it comes to academics,” said Jackson,
16. “It gave me a platform to express how I felt because I
was able to write my own stories and share them. It gave
me an outlet to become a person who I was proud to be.”
Fellow student Edgar Santos Perez, 15, who worked
through his shyness in the class, agrees. “It affects you
a lot to become more confident. Outside of theatre,
you learn more and you see a bigger picture on certain
things. You develop a bigger understanding and love for
art,” he said.
Teaching artist Greg Thornton of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Elementary points to a portrait of himself that a student
drew to represent four important people in his life, part of
a class project inspired by Mount Rushmore.
Despite The Creative Advantage support, resources are
still limited for arts at Rainier Beach, which is made up of
97 percent students of color and 75 percent who qualify
for free or reduced lunch. But Jackson says she is proud
of the school’s accomplishments, including winning the
2018 Washington State Thespian Lip Sync Battle.
“Winning the Lip Sync Battle as a very diverse and
very Black group, we were able to show people that
hey, we might not have enough money to put on a full
production, but we can still be just as successful as
any majority white school – without having to spend
thousands of dollars on sets or costumes or scripts,”
She added that the drama department started the year
with zero dollars and had to raise $5,500 through a
GoFundMe campaign to send the team to Bellingham
for the state competition.
Because Rainier Beach does not have resources for a
full theatre show, Jackson asked Franklin High School if
she could join their production for the experience.
“Having to go to another school in order to be a part of
that, I don't think it's OK … People call [Rainier Beach
High School] ‘ghetto’ but we just have less resources.
We're looked down upon,” Jackson says. “We shouldn't
have to beg or ask to be part of [another] high school’s
production because we don't have the resources
Despite the disparities, Jackson and Rainier Beach
remain determined. “I'm learning a life lesson of how
to work with and gain more with the very little that you
are given. Or maybe you're not given anything and work
from the bottom to become even more successful than
someone who is privileged and was given a head start.”
Heart & Science Magazine
Read Heat & Science magazine Vol. 6 for more on how philanthropists, community organizations and Seattle Foundation are working to create a healthy community through supporting the environment and arts & culture.
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