Back to Schools: Be Creative Makes the Arts a Priority for CPS

This year, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students across the city will have the opportunity to engage in more than 64 exciting arts education programs and projects, thanks to the funds and grants provided by Be Creative and the Creative Schools Fund. A campaign for arts education in Chicago Public Schools, Be Creative operates based on the principle that the arts are a necessary component of a solid education. The Be Creative mission statement says, “They are at the very core of what we must teach all children, at every stage of their education.”

Be Creative and the Creative Schools Fund’s shared goal is to bring the arts and arts education to every school, every class and every K-12th grade student in Chicago. Over the next four years, the campaign hopes to distribute $38 million in private donations to schools around Chicago. The various grants and donations from the Creative Schools Fund are distributed in two main ways: First, arts supplies and resources like scripts for plays, instruments for band or paintbrushes for art class that a school is not able to afford are provided. Roughly $1 million was distributed through grants like these of about $1,000-2,000 to more than 550 schools this school year. Second, larger, more competitive grants are distributed to support initiatives, programs and projects envisioned and designed by teachers of the arts. About 165 schools received grants of this nature this school year, which totaled close to $1.5 million.

One such project was recently done by the students of Prosser Career Academy, who created works of art and music that helped tell the story of how Creole music migrated up the Mississippi River to Chicago.

Students from Prosser Career Academy; they partnered with Orbert Davis and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic
Students from Prosser Career Academy; they partnered with Orbert Davis and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic

“It really was a remarkable program,” says Paul Sznewajs, Executive Director at Ingenuity, Be Creative’s parent nonprofit, of the project, which relied on collaboration between the school’s music, French, and history teachers as well as the high-schoolers, and “culminated into a performance that partnered with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic.”

According to Sznewajs, a lot of change and action is already apparent after only one year. “Combine the investments of the Creative Schools Fund through the money that’s raised in the Be Creative Campaign along with some policy changes and other support systems that have been put in place this year, [and] about 30,000 CPS students have greater access to arts education and instruction,” he says.

CPS created its first-ever arts education plan three years ago, setting the wheels of positive change in motion . This was a master plan, of sorts, to systematically expand the arts across all public schools in Chicago. Over the past three years, the number of elementary schools that provide arts instruction for two hours a week has grown by 40 percent. Those two hours a week can make a huge difference in a child’s educational experience. “The arts are so important because children learn through the arts in a way that they don’t learn just through reading a book or having a conversation,” explains Chris Inserra, Global Music Teaching Artist, in a Be Creative video. The students are engaged in a different way than they normally would be through traditional school classes, and they in turn engage their parents through their performances or the artwork they create, fostering a community around the school that may not have been there before.

Sometimes even schools that do make an effort to recognize the importance of arts education still fail to prioritize the curriculum enough to secure adequate funding. “Nobody’s ever said the arts aren’t important, but what happens is the arts get forgotten,” says Trevor Nicholas, Choral Director and Fine Arts Chair for Prosser Career Academy. Be Creative seeks to set this right by increasing awareness and funding.

At a recent event, Be Creative hosted a panel discussion exploring the ways that the availability of arts and creativity education in schools correlates to community, civic, and business success down the road. The panel included renowned soprano Renee Fleming, Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, President Emeritus at Northwestern University Dr. Henry Bienen and Be Creative Co-chair Richard Kiphart. They questioned whether Chicago would have the vibrant cultural communities, neighborhoods and business sector that it does if the arts were not a part of the educational systems. Profound discussions and events like these help Be Creative raise awareness and continue to expand arts curriculum successfully in schools.

Sznewajs sums up the Be Creative’s ultimate goal when he explains, “Really what we’re after is greater access to arts instruction on a regular basis. So I like to say it doesn’t matter if you walk into a school on Monday morning in either Ravenswood or Englewood or anywhere else in the city of Chicago, that if you walk in, each child in every school should have the same expectations of what they’re given in terms of arts services.” Thanks to the great work of Be Creative and the Creative Schools Fund, this goal is now well on its way to being achieved.


Watch our MIBTV video of Be Creative’s work with Lindblom Academy:

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