A Portrait of the Artist as a High School Student: Ravenswood’s Independent Arts Programs

Kelsey Galles, Kylie Gilbert, and Harry Swartout also contributed to this story.

Ravenswood’s Lake View High School, Cate Mascari’s Wednesday morning choral class breezes through a complicated piece with the aid of a teacher from Chicago’s Music of the Baroque who is on loan to Lake View for private, pro bono voice lessons.

A student peruses her copy of “Libertango,” a chorus the class is working on with Mascari.

A student peruses her copy of “Libertango,” a chorus the class is working on with Mascari.

This choir class is one of Mascari’s crowning achievements in her six years at Lake View; through it she helps students cultivate a love for music and world culture as well as the confidence that comes from conquering a hard piece of music, performing it and earning praise.

The addition of a having a well-rounded resume to pass off to colleges does not hurt either. “By pursuing music and other extracurriculars you show your college and your future employers that you can handle a lot of things in your life,” said Mascari. “It says a lot about your time management.”

Extracurricular activities are indeed becoming increasingly important to enter higher education around the country. With increases in applicants, schools – especially the top colleges and universities – have to make tough selections between equally qualified students.

Take Northwestern University, their total number of applicants increased 12 percent last year, making the university even more selective. Northwestern accepted only 18 percent of applications in 2011, compared to 23 percent in 2010. Yet, from Fall 2009 to Fall 2010, 73 percent of colleges nationwide, including Northwestern, reported an increase in applications. This high number of applicants force universities to make tough decisions when choosing their incoming freshman class.

In its 2010 College Admissions Survey, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, NACAC, rated extracurricular activities higher in importance than other credentials, including SAT II scores, state graduation exam scores and employment.

And with arts programs nationwide facing the axe in recent years due to budget woes from the Great Recession, the needed art education and related activities are harder to come by. Some areas, like the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago where Lake View is located, offer opportunities for outside enrichment, but the schools are still generally lacking in funds.

For her part, Mascari attempts to provide her students with music education and exposure through outside programs. The school’s outsourcing, she says, has been instrumental in providing students with fine arts experience – encounters she says her students “would not otherwise have.”

Chicago public school system serves 106 high schools, not including charter schools, and works with a total of 113,873 high school students. Unfortunately, 86 percent of CPS students are considered low income, on the basis of receiving discounted student lunches, and cannot afford to pay for supplemental art classes.

Chicago’s public schools, like Lake View High School, are able to fill the art void with programs like Gallery 37, an offshoot of After School Matters, a not-for-profit organization that partners with CPS to provide fine arts education. The program, started in 1991 to use a long vacant – but prime – downtown commercial property along East Randolph Street (also known as Block 37), got a heavy boost during the tenure of Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose late wife, Maggie, helped run it.

Beverly Anderson, a guidance counselor at Amundsen High School in Ravenswood says the creative alternatives to classroom exposure like Gallery 37 have been paying off. During her 25 years of work in the Chicago Public School system, Anderson has worked with thousands of students and has seen specialty teachers come and go. And in that time, music, woodshop, art and culinary art classes have all experienced “light to heavy cuts” according to Anderson, but her efforts are maintained in providing students “as much exposure to the arts as [she] can.”

Elliot Eisner, professor of education and art at Stanford University and a former instructor of Art and Education at the University of Chicago disagrees.  “High schools do not place enough emphasis on arts,” he said.

In his 2002 lecture given as the John Dewey Lecture at Stanford University, “What Can Education Learn from the Arts About the Practice of Education?” Eisner argues that artistic training helps students develop problem- solving skills as well as creative practice and should be woven into all parts of the curriculum, “The sense of vitality and the surge of emotion we feel when touched by one of the arts,” he says, ”can also be secured in the ideas we explore with students, in the challenges we encounter in doing critical inquiry, and in the appetite for learning we stimulate.”

Or rather, having the ability to think creatively makes art education invaluable to and inseparable from all other “academic” pursuits from essay writing to critical thinking.

Locally, the North Side’s Ravenswood neighborhood hosts a plethora of community arts programs to enrich its residents. Consider the Chicago School of Woodworking, which provides classes for students who are missing out on woodshop classes that may have been cut in recent years.

Started in 2007, the Chicago School of Woodworking, at 5104 N. Ravenswood Ave., teaches classes ranging from the basic “Intro to Woodworking” to the advanced “Stereo Speaker Building and Subwoofer.” Beginner or master, woodworking allows students to do more than just build a birdhouse.

“They’re firing these synapses and they get it,” says Shaun Devine, co-founder of the Chicago School of Woodworking and former Chicago Public Schools teacher. “It’s hands on three-dimensional thinking.”

By measuring cuts, creating joints, and drawing plans, students solve complex problems – not only in a hands-on capacity. The problem-solving students confront during a woodworking project are just as complex as three-dimensional space problems freshman college engineering students battle.

For students interested in music, the Old Town School of Folk Music at 4544, 4545 N. Lincoln Ave. and 909 West Armitage Avenue offers a wide range of instrumental lessons for high school clientele as well as students of all ages. The school offers 700 classes, private lessons and workshops that cover an array of genres with 2,700 students a week passing through the doors of Old Town’s three locations.

Zoey Szmulewitz, a private guitar teacher at Old School, says he teaches his students to “teach themselves.” The skills necessary to master a musical instrument cannot be taught via lecture or demonstration, they must be learned by the student through trial and error.

Indeed, the determination necessary to become proficient in a musical instrument is a life skill that Szmulewitz tries to instill in his students – and one that he believes universities look at favorably.

For students interested in studio art, Lillstreet Art Center, located at4401 N. Ravenswood Ave., provides over 200 classes ranging from glassmaking to pottery to painting. It too, attracts a high volume of students who would otherwise be missing out the bulk of arts education in Chicago’s schools, and therefore weakening their resumes.

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Melanie Brown, a teacher at Lillstreet, says the center recognizes the limits of art programming in public schools and works to fill this void by opening up more adult classes to high school students.

According to Brown, art provides a way for students to build their independence and sense of self, two qualities that colleges certainly look for during the application process. The work students create “is not something that can be measured quantitatively. “It’s very open-ended,” she said, explaining the process of creating is a critical experience that students are lacking in traditional classes of math, science and literature.

Brown acknowledges that Lillstreet and other alternative programs may not be a viable option for some students. “Our classes are expensive,” she says. Consider: Most Lillstreet classes run between $100 and $300 and may not be attainable for lower income families. For example, their five week glass flameworking class offered for students ages 14 to 18 is $165, a price most low-income students simply can’t justify.

Gallery 37 offers totally free classes, providing opportunities for students to learn under world-class artists while padding their art portfolios for their college applications all at no extra cost to the student.

It is programs like Gallery 37 and other not-for-profit art organizations that make art education a reality for the majority of Chicago Public School students, but art education is still diminishing. The economy is slowly healing, judging by the housing market, which experienced a raise in home prices in February for first time in 18 months. However, school administrators do not consider art a priority budget item and so there is truly no way to tell when or even if art programs will be given a boost. Yet, while opportunities for art education are becoming rare in public schools, a solid art foundation is even more precious for kids in high school and beyond.

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