“Is Art Education Essential to End Violence Among Teens?” Chicago’s Issue

I am a public school teacher in the inner city of Chicago. Chicago is at a cross roads, torn between  a friendly midwestern city and one that is on its way to earning the title of America’s bloodiest city. Gang violence and handgun homicides are at an all time high, with 80 people injured on July 4th alone.  Authentic statistics are hard to come by, different interest groups report different numbers, all supporting their current cause celeb. Times are indeed bleak in the city. Fingers are being pointed, gun control advocates are making a case, and everyone is refusing to admit ( and state) the obvious, lack of quality education and access to it is the root of all evil. The average inmate in a federal prison reads at the third grade level and it is suspected that  80% of inmates are mentally ill, and up to 60% report having one or more disabilities.  (nces.ed.gov) nces.ed.gov/pubs94/94102.pdf.
How does this play into education? CPS ( Chicago Public Schools)  is touting  this “School to Prison Pipeline” notion with minority youth that are being expelled from school. This is ironic because this is also the entity that has cut funding, slashed services, and closed over a third of it’s inner city neighborhood schools. Sending minority children to venture out ( on their own) to schools into different neighborhoods with rival gang factions, and viewpoints. Schools that are often close to an hour away via sketchy public transit and these are schools that may or may not have the services the children need. This is Chicago’s youth reality. As an insider it has been a long known truth that schools in “better” neighborhoods get a majority of funding, have a large parent support base, can have positions purchased by the families via fundraising and get the most capital improvements on their grounds and buildings. Children and families on the South and West sides are often left to fend for themselves and are at the mercy of their local school. A local school that may or may not have toilets that flush, soap in the restrooms, and heat in the winter. Forget about air conditioning and functional windows and fans. The building -once majestic 100 years ago- may or may not have doors that shut properly, leaving the kids within open to outside violence.  This is just a small and very real reality of most children daily. The sad fact is that these “forgotten children” comprise 85% of the district.  A majority. 
I see this every day and have seen this well into my double digits years as a special education teacher. I have been told that “since I’m so good I should leave and seek refuge in a North Side School” I have been fighting the notion that EVERY child deserves quality my entire career. In Chicago this “flight to the White” educational notion is accepted and supported by the higher ups. 
The advent of our new Mayor was a time of hope and renewal for Chicago’s public schools. It was a hope that was quickly dashed and burned at the stake. Teachers lost careers, students lost schools, parents lost hope. Programs deemed “non essential” were eradicated. (Everything outside of core academic subjects is deemed non-essential ). Gone were flourishing music programs, art classes, and clubs. City schools became a vast wasteland of test prep and fly-by-night educational “doctrine”. In lieu of a renaissance we dove head first into regression. The mayor  imposed “mandatory” arts programming in the city but only the wealthy, show pony schools received benefit. Schools in the south and west continued to  culturally and financially starve. 
Yesterday I received an email from a police officer I know from the neighborhood, it was an editorial piece titled, “Can Art Reduce Neighborhood Violence?
It hit a chord with me on so many levels. This officer has worked with me for many years and knows that my passion is working with  the Emotionally/ Behaviorally Disturbed. He is also the husband of a CPS teacher and knows that I have volunteered my time and resources to teach my case load art as well as sponsor a mural club for our non-traditional students in need of an outlet and boost. He and I have talked for countless hours about teens and juvenile offenders and the need for alternate expression and “out of the box” authentic education. 
I also took this email as a sign that my upcoming blended job is meant to change/ be. This year in addition to my special education duties I am also giving up my prep  and lunch  time to be able to  teach middle school art/ art therapy. It is a culmination of a dream of mine. To blend my two careers and to reach more kids with a viable outlet of expression. The time is also ripe for change. The system is broke, has been for decades, and is far past needing to be fixed. I often wonder if it can though? 
This brings me back to the essential question, “Is Art Education Essential to End Violence Among Teens?”  Violence, death and poverty will never be able to be packaged into a neat little box , be wrapped up,  and discarded. Guns, drugs and gangs will never cease to exist, and  families will still break themselves. Can art education make change? Are teens developmentally capable of making pro social driven decisions?  These are questions I struggle with daily. These are questions, that at one time, almost pushed me out of education. These are  now also the same questions that drive me further into educational policy and doctrine. They light a fire, they anger me, they anger everyone. They especially anger the kids. The answer is “YES”. Yes art is essential. This is not a clean and tidy “yes”, coloring book sheets are not art, rigidities of people will create resistance, teachers will have to change the way they deliver instruction ,money will have to flow and all children will have to be given an equal and authentic voice in the process. This will also take time. Not a semester, quarter, year, but substantial and real time. 
Most students who find themselves in disciplinary peril are often the same students I work with. They are often struggling emotionally and socially  , are  not having educational needs met/accommodated in classes, and are often in the position of trying to avoid/escape tasks they deem aversive.  Ironically these are almost always the same kids who are creative, musically inclined, and verbalizing the desire to do “projects” and “build things”.  This creates a cycle of lost instructional opportunities and turns out kids that are reading at the third grade level entering high school. Gangs and drugs look very appealing to these children. Crime is accepting, gangs are “family”, a good earner receives “respect and admiration” . A downward spiral loves without condition.  Denying art education is denying a child the skills needed to be able to avoid these perilous destinies. Through art one can teach all core academic subjects but so much more. You can teach a child to think, reason, make choices, you can give a non-verbal child words, you can give the angry peace, you can give the non-readers the ability to tell their stories. You allow a child a chance to heal and above all else you facilitate change,  and from this change real education springs forth.  In the end only the educated are those that  can and will reduce violence. Most students do not aspire to leave school and enter the penitentiary. Crime is a function of a behavior. Behavior springs from life’s events. By not offering art education you are only strengthening the “School to Prison Pipeline” notion and expediting another generation of lost souls. 

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6 thoughts on ““Is Art Education Essential to End Violence Among Teens?” Chicago’s Issue

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