Drawing on Limited Resources:
901 Arts Finds a Way for Children of Better Waverly
Baltimore, Maryland – October 5, 2011
It’s 4 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon in Baltimore’s Better Waverly neighborhood. Five children, ages 6 to 12, impatiently wait at the storefront of 901 Montpelier St.: the girls chattering about school crushes, the boys showing off gymnastic flips. Director Sarah Tooley unbolts the heavily alarmed door in paint-covered smock and gloves. Another typical day at 901 Arts is just getting started.
Since 2006, 901 Arts has provided free and low-cost after-school, weekend and summer arts education for Better Waverly children. Its mostly college student- and volunteer-taught programs include both visual arts and music lessons. When instructors are available, the center also offers dance.
This April, funding for Tooley—its single full time staff-person—will run out, threatening to limit its programming. There is no replacement grant on the horizon.
901 Arts is one in a growing trend of community-run arts education programs popping up across the country. Arts for All in Los Angeles and Big Thought in Dallas are two acclaimed examples. Yet in Baltimore 901 provides a unique case of a volunteer-led, individual- and grant-funded program aiming to fill the gaps in city public education.
According to the 2012 operating budget for Baltimore City Public Schools, special funding for the arts has been steadily decreasing. What was $120,572 in 2010, fell to a projected $63,174 in 2012.
And experts are seeing the trend everywhere.
"More and more communities around the country are aligning resources in the spirit of the old adage, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ " said Arts Education Program Coordinator Kristen Engebretsen, of Americans for the Arts. "Schools, principals, superintendents, school boards, parents and community members are collaborating now more than ever to ensure that every child has access to a well-rounded education: which includes the arts."
According to 901 Arts data, 25 percent of neighborhood children make use of center programs. With roughly 500 kids attending kindergarten through 12th grades in the community, 122 came through its doors last year.
On this day, unseasonably warm temperatures have allowed Tooley to announce classes will be held outside. While younger children gather eagerly around tables, now set along the sidewalks of Montpelier Street, Tooley packs up a shopping bag of carefully measured paint cans and leads a group of three, more advanced students down the block. They’ll be working on an especially popular project aimed at just such comprehensive instruction: the Waverly storm drains.
After expressing concerns over trash in their neighborhood, students spearheaded a project to paint marine life on community storm drains. Their hope was to educate neighbors about the Chesapeake Bay and effects of littering.
It took considerable work with the city to obtain permits, but the project has been steadily moving forward for the past two years.
"Sarah has truly brought it into change and social justice," said Debra Evans, chairperson of the Better Waverly Youth Committee and one of the founders of 901 Arts. "Because these kids know all about why they’re doing that and it’s nothing about making the neighborhood pretty. Had she did it without all that other training, maybe that’s what they would have said, but they know."
Ten storm drains have been painted so far. Six more are in the works.
"It’s not like, oh Waverly has more artists living in it, or more youth artists, but that the art center is just one medium that we’re using to engage young people to grow as community leaders," Tooley said.
National studies support the benefits of art education. Stanford University and the Carnegie Foundation have put high school drop out rates, before grade 10, at 4.8 percent for students with low amounts of arts involvement. Among those with high arts involvement the statistic falls to 1.4 percent.
At the same time, a 2010 report by The College Board found that students who take four full years of arts and music classes during high school score an average of 102 points higher on their SATs than students who take one semester or less.
"It’s a misstatement," Tooley said, addressing the state of city arts programming. "They say every school has arts in it, but if you can only take it in one grade then you aren’t really getting art."
While the cost for 901 to educate each child has not been calculated, it certainly outweighs its price tag: "We’re asking families to donate $10 and your kids can take as many classes as they want, but no one is turned away, for a whole semester," Tooley said. "And rarely do we get that. $10 doesn’t even cover their snack."
With what Evans called “no money at all,” 901 draws on community partners for much of its programming.
Maryland Institute College of Art students provide the majority of teaching support, and are allowed to write and deliver curricula of their choice. Towson University has also lent student teachers. Through a partnership with Johns Hopkins, students are able to take individual music lessons, including voice, guitar, bass guitar, piano, violin and trumpet. Private instructors lead a locally acclaimed drum line in meetings twice per week.
While 901 isn’t focused on turning out the next great American painter or even tomorrow’s art educators, success stories are easy to find.
"One of the more beautiful things I’ve seen happen is we’ve had people who have taken arts classes with us or music classes come into more leadership roles," said Tooley.
An example is LaShae, a second year student at 901, who last year applied to a summer teacher art institute. Through the program she was able to teach classes at 901 and get paid—while becoming comfortable on a college campus, sitting in on graduate-level community arts classes at Maryland Institute College of Art.
"I want to work in criminal justice," said LaShae, now a high school junior. "I want to do pre-law in college."
Other past students, including Evan’s daughter Taylor, have successfully completed Youth As Resources grant writing workshops, and been awarded funding to run special programs at the center.
While for some students, such as 8th grader Dimaun who has been involved at 901 Arts since its first year, commitment to the program is the greatest sign of success.
"Half of these kids grew up in the center and half of them are just coming on board," said Evans. "But this is where they’re choosing to spend their after school. Rough kids learn they don’t have to be so tough. We’re glad to find out they’re enrolled at City College or other high schools."
In the hour and a half spent painting phase-one of what will become a mermaid, on the storm drain at 30th and Frisby Streets, Tooley’s team has received considerable attention. One neighbor has stopped, grabbed a brush and helped add color to a pre-outlined section. Six cars have paused to compliment the project and talk with the group. Eight neighbors have passed on foot sharing smiles and words of praise. And one woman has come out to her porch across the street, shouting, "If I would have known you all were coming I would have cleaned up the trash out there."
With April’s grant finish line looming, volunteers and supporters vow to keep the center going and, as much as they can, to shield the children from financial concerns.
"Don’t worry," Tooley tells her wide-eyed students. "I’m not gonna let it close. We’ll find a way."