Seattle Foundation Blog

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.


Naomi coloring  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 symbolism.

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 game Roblox.

Thornton says the activity teaches children about Native culture and gives them pride in themselves and their families.

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 Your Dream?”

“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 state average.

The Need for Arts Equity

Seattle Public School Students pie graph by ethnicity - download pdf for full numbers

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

Bar chart - "In a five-year period, the number of Seattle Public Schools with K-5 Music doubled from 24 to 48 schools and K-5 Visual Art doubled from 24 to 49 schools."

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

Students in theater practice Rainier Beach High School theatre students Flora Saelor, Elijah Diaz and Jessica Ta rehearse a scene from the musical “Annie.”

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 350  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,” Jackson says.

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 for it.”

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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