CPS Replacing ‘Cornerstone’ Arts Program, Upsetting Some Educators and Students

Chicago Public Schools is set to replace its long-running and much-celebrated Advanced Arts Program, a free magnet offering for high school students that supporters laud both for its wide-ranging courses and the opportunities it offers for young people who struggle to fit in.

The successor to the program, RE:ALIZE, was announced to teachers and students last month.

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In a statement to WTTW News, CPS officials said it “remains committed to developing strong and equitable early college arts pathways. The District is launching ‘RE:ALIZE,’ to give high school juniors and seniors greater access to a cohesive sequence of coursework - or pathways - in Dance, Music, Theater and the Visual Arts. RE:ALIZE represents the next phase of the CPS Advanced Arts Program, retaining the original vision of a city-wide arts incubator, while making meaningful shifts to offer more student choice and increase access to the arts.”

But critics say RE:ALIZE was developed without significant input from teachers, students, or their families. One educator describes it as “a shadow” of the current offerings.

The Advanced Arts Program (AAP) has been running for more than 20 years. Before the pandemic, about 150 students were dismissed from their home school in time to travel to the Gallery 37 building for two hours of instruction each day. The small classes were led by both a CPS teacher and a teaching artist in the field. The diverse offerings have ranged from jazz band to culinary arts, photography to ceramics, and dance to animation.

“It was really beautiful,” said painter Assata Mason, who spent two years in AAP and just graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “It’s like a home for uncultivated souls. It was a really good place for you to find yourself, to find what you wanted to do.”

Since the onset of COVID-19, the program has variously been offered remotely, as a hybrid, and fully in person. Last year, AAP moved from its longtime downtown home. Teachers say After School Matters, which AAP shared Gallery 37 with, had for years taken up more and more space in the building. For the 2021-2022 school year, AAP was moved to Wells Community Academy High School at Ashland and Augusta in West Town.

Staffers raised concerns about the move, pointing out that having a downtown home provided students cultural opportunities like museums and galleries. And they noted that a central location was the best way to ensure students from around the city wouldn’t have to travel long distances.

“Any arts program that’s for CPS students that isn’t located in the Loop, it’s an instant equity issue,” one former staffer said of the new program.

Teachers say the move itself was rushed and fraught, with facilities issues like no keys, locked bathrooms, and missing air conditioning units. Educators called the move “very, very, very rough” and “a pretty heavy blow.” They also say programs were cut mid-year, and that the hybrid model was unexpectedly switched to fully in person, throwing students’ schedules for a loop.

In an email sent the evening before spring break began last month, leaders from the CPS Department of Arts Education informed teachers that the Advanced Arts Program would become RE:ALIZE and invited them to apply for a position with the new program.

Educators say the late word came as a surprise, and came after months of unanswered questions about the upcoming school year.

“We’re all part-time instructors and artists living paycheck to paycheck,” said teaching artist Jason Betke. “It’s nice to know in advance if we’re going to have a job next year.”

The new program is set to offer a two-year education in dance, theater, visual arts, or music, with dual enrollment courses offering college credit. Students will split their time between Wells High School and City Colleges. As yet, only the visual arts program is set to be up and running in time for the coming school year, with the other three slated to begin in 2023.

Instead of spending five days a week at a single site with classes taught by two instructors, students will spend two days at Wells and two days at City Colleges, with Friday as an optional open studio day. CPS says partnering with City Colleges will make it easier for students around the city to access arts education.

“The District is thrilled to be partnering with City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) to offer students across the city equitable access to participate in RE:ALIZE,” the district said in a statement. “RE:ALIZE students will earn 12 college credits in their artistic disciplines through dual enrollment courses, as well as join an interdisciplinary studio at Wells Community Academy High School, facilitated by an artist-In-residence, and complete work-based learning opportunities within their field.”

Among the reasons cited for the change to the program: student interest in college- and career-focused programs, the difficulty of traveling to Wells five days a week, and a decline in AAP enrollment.

Critics of the new program say the decline in enrollment is due in part to COVID-19 and the unexpected move to Wells, and that the change in course offerings and program structure are a disservice to students

“I think a lot of the dynamic things about the program are getting flattened,” one teacher said.

Backers of AAP say it wasn’t just the move to Wells that had put the future of the program in a precarious position. They also describe a lack of support from leaders at the CPS Department of Arts Education.

“Over and over again, we were explaining to new leadership the vision for this program,” another former staffer said.

It’s the second time in recent years the program has been on the chopping block. In 2016, WTTW News reported that teachers were told the program would be shuttered, a decision the district later walked back.

Backers have organized a petition asking CPS CEO Pedro Martinez to reverse the decision. Former participants mourned the change to the program and expressed concerns about its successor.

“When I enrolled in that program, it was my first time really being introduced to other people my age who played, who had similar interests to me,” said jazz program alum Jahari Stampley, a pianist who has worked with artists including Jill Scott, Stanley Clark, and Jacob Collier. “Being around teachers who had real-life advice, who have really been in that industry … allowed me to craft my path in a realistic way.”

“We saw that … people actually believe in us to make these movies,” said filmmaker Andres Aurelio. He and his collaborator Salvador Salazar met in AAP, and have screened their work in the CineYouth showcase that’s part of the Chicago International Film Festival. “I feel like if we hadn’t taken the plunge to go to Advance Arts, we wouldn’t have seen it as a viable career.”

CPS says the new program won’t just give students a chance to earn college credits, it will help develop them hone their skills for the future.

“The RE:ALIZE student learning experience will culminate in a senior portfolio from each student that will reflect a student’s sustained artistic investigation and their arts-rich post-secondary plan,” the district said in its statement.

“There is a genuine need for this program in Chicago Public Schools – not just for students planning on going into the arts, but for students who need a place to belong,” said AAP teacher Gina Szulkowksi. “We don’t have many of those spaces in CPS, and this is that space. And it’s a very powerful one.”

Contact Nick Blumberg: [email protected] | (773) 509-5434 | @ndblumberg

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