"After-School Arts Program Turns Into Full-Time School"

I’m inspired by youth programs that demonstrate success in one sphere are willing to step up to the plate to take more holistic responsibility for students without compromising their creativity and distinctiveness.  It sounds like the Little Black Pearl after-school arts program on the South Side of Chicago, profiled in a six-minute video on June 11’s PBS Newshour, has done exhibited great courage and competency in becoming a successful and stimulating school. (On a related front, I spent a wonderful few hours this week with Alec Resnick of Somerville’s sprout & co which in 2015 will be launching an extraordinary full-time learning experience for students—which he assiduously asserts will NOT be a “school— and which will constitute many a future CPath blog)  

Launched last year from the after-school center, Little Black Pearl Academy is “writing a new songbook for success” through integrating arts and academics.  (Inspiring) founder Monica Haslip notes that “my biggest motivation for this school was looking at the volume and number of children we have in Chicago who are dropping out” and wanted to combat poor attendance using the arts as an invitation to come to school each day, knowing what a strong draw arts can be for even the most disaffected youth.  She underscores how Little Black Pearl uses arts as a portal through which to engage in academics, to break stereotypes and engage students in more generative possibilities, and to make what they’re learning in classroom more relevant.  

And it seems to be working: Students in Samantha Peterson’s classroom have showed highest academic gains in any Chicago classroom without any conventional test prep (I’d love to learn more how those gains accrue/)

NewsHour responsibly notes that these kinds of results don't come cheap, and that significant private funding is needed to cover costs such as those incurred by the glass blowing studio. Such relatively modest supplemental investments yield huge dividends at Black Pearl.  The story profiles a very in-depth art and performance piece called “Big Bang,” taught by Tracy Kirshmann, that enables students to engage with gun violence in a very powerful way since “there’s not a week that goes by in the school that we don't have students who are personally, directly, intimately influenced by gun violence”

Student melt glass into the form of guns, and soon learn that the glass will explode if not cooled due to stress and overheated temperature.  One can’t but miss the analogical understandings evoked through such a project, and the opportunity to draw together artistic, scientific, sociological, and societal understandings (I hope they might be reading “Raisin in the Sun” in English class)  Students do in fact subject the glass to extreme temperatures, such that in addition to constantly creating guns, they are constantly exploding and cracking apart, leaving broken pieces strewn about as a metaphor for how families can be shattered by gun violence.  What an excellent example of Alinsky’s iron rule of organizing—go to where the energy is—channeled in into a teachable moment.  The instructor notes how projects like this get built upon to “re-enchant students with wanting to learn, getting them hooked through the process and taking them deeper through the physics and the molecular level of glass in order to interest them in science.”  This sure would have been a better path into science for me as a high school student!

Says Haslip, “through providing them with the tools, and the equipment, and the professional support helps them to see that there’s a pathway to a career.”  And for that, Little Black Pearl Academy gets this week’s CPath badge of courage :-)

While Little Black Pearl seems to be successfully crossing over from after-school to in-school learning, many high-quality out-of-school learning can’t or won’t make this transition—and many shouldn’t and should continue to devote their energy and resources to out-of-school experiences.  The key is to make the borders between in and out of school learning more porous and permeable.  

CityPathways aspires to help connect kids to the optimal out-of-school experiences for their interests, broadening their spheres of exposure and building bridges between in- and out-of- school learning AND between in-school learning and meaningful livelihoods.  Stay tuned for more about how we’re doing this!

--Submitted by Sanda