EdVestors Announces $485,000 in Arts Expansion Grants to Boston Public Schools

Research & Insights / 15 Years of BPS Arts Expansion: Reflections from Community and Arts Education Leaders

15 Years of BPS Arts Expansion: Reflections from Community and Arts Education Leaders

In 2009, EdVestors launched Boston Public Schools (BPS) Arts Expansion, bringing together local foundations, the school district,  arts organizations, higher education institutions and city government to create a coherent, sustainable approach to quality arts education for all BPS students. What was originally a three-year, $2.5 million effort is now in its 15th year, resulting in nearly 17,000 additional students annually now receiving arts education compared with 2009, and the number of BPS arts teachers nearly doubling. 

To commemorate this milestone, we have asked some of our key BPS Arts Expansion collaborators, including Arts Advisory Board member Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf, Principal Researcher at WolfBrown, and Klare Shaw, philanthropy professional and educational leader, to reflect on BPS Arts Expansion’s accomplishments.

What has been the impact of BPS Arts Expansion for you/your organization?’

Klare Shaw: The impact of BPS Arts Expansion on me, the City, and the arts education ecosystem, was extremely positive. It showed our combined ability to implement a successful model--one that at its height (pre-COVID-19) delivered quality arts education to 17,000 more BPS students per year. Our data showed that these learning opportunities had a positive attendance impact--particularly on students of color in under-resourced schools. 

BPS Arts Expansion (BPS-AE) had buy-in from partners on every level. EdVestors and the BPS-AE team were critical as it provided synergistic leadership with trust in its neutrality. Over the years of the effort I had the relatively unique experience of seeing local and national funders combine efforts to: 1) work well with a public school system 2) collaborate as partners with cultural nonprofits and arts educators 3) gather information from Boston’s teachers and public school administrators 4) develop a web of support that distributed dollars and increased arts learning experiences throughout the system; and finally 5) use progress data to hold all parties accountable for the benefit of all students. We showed people that with the right ingredients a city-wide effort could succeed. And in many ways, BPS-AE became a model for other sectors. 

Dennie Wolf: To have a partnership like this over a decade is very fulfilling because such things often come and go. So you know, if you work with someone over time, your relationship deepens and your ability to have candid and hard conversations grows.

It's been tremendously important for me because all of those people [at EdVestors] are fiercely connected to Boston, its politics, its promise, its problems, etc. And, I live across the river in Cambridge and do a lot of work nationally. It would be easy for me to not feel that loyalty. But every time I interact with EdVestors, I think, “Oh, this is what it means for a nonprofit to be really fiercely invested in its community.” And it reminds me that if I'm going to live close to and work in Boston, I need to have that same kind of fierce investment. 

What changes have you seen in arts education in BPS because of BPS Arts Expansion?

KS: Having official arts staff in the BPS central office and in schools gave BPS-AE the structure needed for stability. We are coming up to the 12th annual BPS arts festival to be held at the Boston Common featuring ensembles from 30+ schools. The festival is a testament to the staying power of this incredible effort! 

Throughout the city you regularly see students from a wide range of schools expressing themselves in the visual and performing arts with confidence and impressive skills. Whether through murals, plays, concerts, or spoken word the arts are much more prevalent and public, and the connections between the schools and cultural institutions bring exciting collaborations. BPS students and families have many opportunities to see high quality art that speaks to them created by peers and offspring. This brings happiness to school buildings and celebrations to neighborhoods.

School leaders have seen the impact of arts education in their buildings and feel that it is an important investment that improves and enlivens school culture. Using the arts to create culturally and racially relevant, equitable and responsive experiences where students can learn from one another-- strengthens and enhances our city.

Since BPS-AE began, the number of BPS arts teachers has more than doubled, and they are working with adequate space, materials, curriculum, and support. When you attended gatherings of those energized BPS arts teachers you felt a growing optimism about the work and their impact. This is a critical note because it is the foot soldiers in the schools and in central who monitor, leverage, and maintain the progress.

Finally, the role of external funds that flow to the district cannot be underestimated. Funders continue to be impressed with the local results of BPS-AE and know that for many students, arts and culture was the lure that brought them to virtual and hybrid classes during the last four years. Arts learning is an integral part of Boston’s learning universe.

DW: I think that Arts Expansion has clearly been a setting in which Boston committed to two very important things, One was exactly as the name says: the expansion. That means the growth of paid arts teacher positions and programs in the district that it continues to support with professional development. In this way[BPS] Arts Expansion has fostered, supported, and made public Boston's commitment to building arts instruction within the district. 

A second  thing that EdVestors has done is to bring that work  to local and national attention. BPS Arts Expansion over time has gone to conferences, written and posted things increasingly online, which has brought what it really looks like for a district to make that commitment to national attention and to go public with what it looks like to sustain that commitment over the years. Oftentimes, those kinds of commitments are fostered by a big federal grant or a governor who's interested or something like that - but then they fade away. Part of the enormous importance of EdVestors has been to sustain the effort. The longitudinal growth of the initiative over time that is certainly a standout among urban districts in the US.

The effort has been very clear that it was about access to arts learning for young people throughout BPS. The effort has really been about all schools in Boston, as opposed to highlighting some half dozen or so. I think it’s strategic in the sense that Arts Expansion has been on the system-level and not about a few standout locations. 

I've also been struck by the recent work BPS Arts Expansion has done through the Bloomberg Arts Internship program and at the way in which the work is evolving at the high school level. As [EdVestors] leads the charge to think about arts as employment pathways, [EdVestors] has championed the arts being a part of [equitable career pathways]. That's what I mean by evolution. That was not true 10 years ago. But as career pathways have become much more present in public education in Boston, EdVestors has been a part of insisting that the arts be seen in that same light.

What are your hopes and dreams for the future of arts education in BPS?

DW: As the mayor, the superintendent, EdVestors, and other partners rethink how high schools will become vibrant and vital for students in Boston, I think the arts have a very strong role to play there - so long as we understand the arts broadly. Not just as being a concert pianist, but also as being the sound designer for a production. Not just as a painter who shows up on the walls of the Museum of Fine Arts, but also as a graphic designer working in public service. 

Giving the arts or creative activity a much wider, more vigorous part in rethinking high school education in Boston would be one of my very top hopes. 

Finally, EdVestors’ work in support of the arts demonstrates is how important it is to build and sustain a coalition of donors, acknowledge their interest in the arts, and ask them to join in sustaining public investment. It's a public-private partnership where no single person’s fantasy about what arts education should look like gets to take over the stage. 

KS: My hopes and dreams are simple: more, and better. I dream of arts instruction that is of such a high caliber that it assures all interested 45,742 talented BPS students’ lucrative careers in the arts, that college level arts education programs will accept local students, and that cultural institutions will welcome BPS artists and display their professional work. I would also like to see enough resources for arts education in BPS so that it may continue to be a beacon for social justice and inclusion.

Read the reflections of some of our collaborators from Boston Public Schools on the strides we have made together to improve arts education here and from our key BPS Arts Expansion collaborators on BPS Arts Expansion’s accomplishments here.