Arts Educators Get Creative to Support Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Improving Arts Education in Schools (IAE) launched in August 2019 to extend and apply what we learned through the Studio to School Initiative. Through IAE, we wanted to:
- Support additional arts education programs in applying one or more of the Studio to School principles to improve arts education programming;
- Learn what might be similar or different in new schools and communities that were not part of Studio to School; and
- Learn what arts education improvement was possible, and what it might look like without some of the design elements of Studio to School (e.g., intensive learning community).
Improving Arts Education in Schools funded nine projects to improve arts education across 39 school sites over two years, wrapping up in August 2021.
The Improving Arts Education in Schools Projects
Most projects were led by arts organizations, several of which served multiple school communities, while a couple were led by teams working with or inside of school districts:
Arts in Education of the Gorge
Ethos Music Center –Rural Outreach Project
Grande Ronde Symphony Association
Portland Public School District
The Improving Arts Education in Schools Evaluation
To support IAE goals and promote learning, the OCF research team and program staff developed an evaluation plan guided by three research questions:
- How did participating arts education programs improve over the course of the funding period?
- To what extent, how, and how well were the principles (and related tools/processes) useful in improving programs?
- How can what we are learning inform further arts education improvement efforts?
OCF research staff also provided technical assistance and resources related to the principles and their underlying concepts including quality, equity and sustainability.
COVID-19 Changes Everything
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a radical departure from our typical routines of work and school. It turned the lights off on classroom learning and threw a wrench into project planning just as many projects were building steam. While some projects had not yet expanded to all of the sites they intended to reach, all projects were actively providing arts education when schools abruptly closed. Even in the midst of this complete reorientation of schools and arts education, many programs were able to continue with their plans, albeit in a different way and /or following a brief pause.
Oregon Community Foundation also quickly pivoted, easing reporting requirements and allowing flexible use of funding for most ongoing grant programs. We shifted from requiring projects to complete reflective worksheets and instead offered opportunities for project teams to be in conversation with OCF and one another instead, in response to project leaders’ need for one another’s camaraderie and in support of collective troubleshooting.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic and its ongoing repercussions thwarted some specific intentions for Improving Arts Education in Schools, including more fully field testing the Studio to School principles, the project teams persevered – adapting and innovating to deliver much needed arts learning opportunities and improving arts education in their communities in a variety of meaningful ways. Our key takeaways include:
The Improving Arts Education in Schools projects were able to adapt, deliver and improve arts education opportunities for students, despite the pandemic and its consequences. Project teams faced innumerable challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and its repercussions in local communities and schools. Working around and through these challenges required incredible innovation and perseverance. Projects tried things they might never have otherwise (e.g., virtual arts learning) and responded to the needs of the students and schools they serve in new and important ways. As a result, and often through critical relationship building within each project and its community, the projects improved arts education in their communities at individual, program, and community levels.
OCF’s flexibility benefited the projects and our collective goals. Flexibility with processes and use of funding demonstrated OCF’s trust in funded programs to do the best work they could despite everchanging circumstances. Flexibility also created space for the innovation needed for the projects to adapt and continue to deliver and improve arts education in their communities. Instead of shutting down or pausing their work, most projects were able to thrive in ways and to an extent none of us anticipated.
Cultivating relationships and learning across projects and between project teams and Foundation staff helped everyone navigate the challenging context of 2020 & 2021. While a robust learning community wasn’t originally part of the plan for Improving Arts Education in Schools, we adapted our evaluation and technical assistance work to prioritize relationship building and shared learning when the need to do so was illuminated by the onset of the pandemic. As we’ve seen through other OCF initiatives (and in philanthropy more broadly), learning communities benefit both funded organizations and the funder. Making space for people to get to know one another, to process their experiences, to learn together and find camaraderie helped everyone keep moving forward – OCF staff and project teams alike.
The Studio to School principles were of mixed usefulness to projects. Improving Arts Education showed us that the principles can be a lasting and meaningful framework, especially for those involved in their creation, and that the themes continue to resonate. However, use of the principles beyond Studio to School likely requires deeper engagement with the principles or development for specific audiences, and a path forward is unclear. Engaging others in developing and/or adapting the principles would likely increase their value and use for those involved.
Ultimately, Improving Arts Education in Schools illustrated that there are many ways to support arts education quality improvement both programmatically and systemically and provided OCF with more experience using a range of philanthropic tools to do so.