Since 2013, students, faculty and staff within the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts have led efforts to increase offerings and education in the arts.
It's been noted in study after study throughout the years: when children have access to the arts, they perform better academically, are more involved in their communities and have better career opportunities later in life. Exposure to things like music, art, theater and dance in and out of the classroom helps students develop critical-thinking, communication and problem-solving skills.
In underserved communities, like areas of East Lubbock, exposure to the arts is often scarce. That began to change in 2012 after Lubbock was awarded a Promise Neighborhood Grant by the U.S. Department of Education, resulting in $24.5 million in federal funding for the East Lubbock Promise Neighborhood (ELPN), an initiative focused on advocating for and supporting children and families in the community.
The ELPN initiative was spearheaded by Texas Tech University's College of Education and has grown to include a variety of departmental and campus groups all focused on a common goal – ensuring East Lubbock children and parents have access to the health, education and community resources they need to grow, learn and succeed. Since 2013, students, faculty and staff within the J.T & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts (TCVPA) have been part of the effort, providing consistent and ever-expanding access to a variety of art resources and programs to students of all ages in East Lubbock.
"At its core, ELPN addresses a lack of opportunities and services,” said Jared Strange, ELPN arts coordinator. "A big part of the grant is just making things available. I think most communities want access to beauty and entertainment and the opportunity to make something. Even if they're not going to turn it into a career, they want to feel that they can contribute to their community and that their contributions are valuable.”
TCVPA-ELPN leads programs that introduce students of all ages to a wide range of artistic disciplines, forms, styles and cultures in a safe and supportive environment. They can learn, create and socialize with others who have similar interests and improve skills like leadership, self-expression, collaboration and communication.
"The arts are about perspective; they have a capacity for improving our understanding of ourselves and each other,” Strange said. "They're about expression and adding a little bit of order to our thoughts, our view of ourselves and our take on the world. I think giving young students access to that is important and empowers them to share their stories and perspectives.”
Programs and initiatives include after-school programming at two Lubbock elementary schools, field trips for all ages of East Lubbock students to the Texas Tech campus, support in schools for art-related education and projects, and the annual summer East Side Arts Camp (ESAC). The work falls within ELPN's mission to provide support and resources to children from "cradle to college to career.”
"A lot of it is about bridging the gap between Texas Tech and East Lubbock,” Strange said. "Texas Tech is the biggest thing here and was not always accessible to everyone in Lubbock. We want to make it a place that benefits everyone in Lubbock, and that means making opportunities available for students of all ages.”
Strange said while East Lubbock does have an extensive artistic history, including jazz musicians, artists and sculptors, creating high-quality, multidisciplinary arts education programs was a priority for residents in East Lubbock. According to data collected by TCVPA in their ongoing "state-of-the-arts survey,” 82 percent of respondents want increased arts and culture offerings in their community, while 69 percent hope for even more opportunities for children.
"Surveys like this are great because they gauge how we're doing in our efforts and what we can do next, which is an important part of trying to maintain and expand our services,” Strange said. "We're trying to assess the participants' arts involvement in school, how much they're involved in their own time, if they practice an art form, attend events and are they aware of artistic offerings based in East Lubbock? The early results show the arts remain a very valuable part of life for most participants and the need for access and the desire for more available programs and opportunities remain pretty high.”
Multidisciplinary after-school programming during the school year at Alderson and Ervin elementary schools helps fulfill these needs and desires. The collaborative effort between TCVPA and the College of Arts & Sciences consists of equal parts physical education and arts.
"At Ervin, there's a full rotation of art, music, theater and dance,” Strange said. "Alderson began as a smaller program with only music and physical education. This year, we've added art and theater. We try to make sure students take as much as they want in whatever interests them.”
In 2016, the after-school program at Ervin included 225 students who completed a variety of projects, from creating song-and-dance routines to composing original music. Students also work together to create models of their ideal neighborhoods based on their wants, needs and own cultures and experiences.
"The students I had the privilege of working with are predominantly African-American and Hispanic,” said David Bondt, a School of Art instructor and local artist. "I felt it was very important to incorporate art curriculum that accentuated the importance of each of those cultures. As the door of learning opened through these purposeful cultural art activities, I realized how important it is for the students, as well as myself, to reflect on where we come from.”
The process allows students and program leaders to recognize how they can succeed through the help of a caring and supportive community like those TCVPA and ELPN programs provide. It's why Bondt said he thinks the programs should be sustained indefinitely.
"One thing I really enjoyed was my students' growth due to exploring these cultural aspects of who they are as a community, filled with a rich history of artistic brilliance such as Louis Armstrong, Faith Ringgold and Kehinde Wiley,” he said. "I find that art is truly a great tool for self-discovery, self-esteem and self-awareness and promotes an atmosphere of celebration about our differences as well as our similarities.”
Strange said the students showcase what they've learned and the work they've completed throughout each semester with a presentation to their peers, educators and families.
"What they put together is pretty impressive,” Strange said. "We believe a showcase gives students the opportunity to work towards a goal, which is very important, and it gives them an opportunity to show off what they've done to their parents, teachers and even peers.”
The afterschool program complements additional in-school support that has come in the form of drama workshops and donations like art supplies, food and a variety of literature.
Students also are given opportunities to visit the university campus and tour the Texas Tech Public Art Collection, which includes more than 100 works and has been nationally ranked as a top-10 public art collection. While on campus, students experience concerts and theatrical productions and can visit lectures and TCVPA open-house events. In the past year, touring students have experienced practice performances of the Goin' Band and attended a production of the classic musical, "Cabaret.”
"There's a big push to bring students here so they can visualize themselves at college,” Strange said. "One of the biggest perks of my job is leading the field trips when we bring students here. It's always good to see students looking around the campus, recognizing things they've seen before and hearing them talk about where they want to live and what they'll be doing when they come to Texas Tech.”
It's a powerful experience for the visiting students, he said.
"Many of them come from families where, if they were to come to college, they would be the first in their families,” Strange said. "Being here makes a difference. Without that, attending college is really just an abstract idea.”
East Side Arts Camp
During the summer, TCVPA gives students another opportunity for involvement – the East Side Arts Camp (ESAC), a five-day program in August held at the Louise Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts (LHUCA). The week includes the unveiling of a community art project and a showcase at the First Friday Art Trail.
"These kinds of programs are extremely beneficial because they provide arts enrichment to students who might have limited access to extracurricular programs during the summer,” Strange said. "We could've filled camp twice over in 2016 and 2017, yet only 13 percent of the students who applied had participated in extracurricular arts during the year. They obviously want to be involved in the arts, they just haven't had the opportunity.”
The program began in 2015 and has grown each summer, with students from four East Lubbock elementary schools participating in the camp. Each year, the students create a public mural at a partner location in East Lubbock with help from local artists.
"The point is to create something beautiful and attractive in an east Lubbock location,” Strange said. "It's a way to give back, and it's very important that the students participate in it.”
TCVPA graduate student Meg Davis began working with the camp in 2015 as a theater instructor and served as assistant director this summer.
"My experience at this year's camp was amazing,” Davis said. "After three years, we've got a really good flow to the day-in, day-out operations, and the camp is small enough to allow space for midweek ideas and spontaneity, which serves our artists-in-residence much more specifically. This year, our students worked with the fable Stone Soup.”
The story focuses on strangers convincing local townspeople, who are used to looking out for themselves, to contribute ingredients to a stone placed in a pot of boiling water, resulting in soup that eventually benefits all the contributors.
"This is an important story for our artists to engage with, and I believe it mimics the East Lubbock Promise Neighborhood grant,” Davis said. "By the end of the week, I could ask the students to help me clean the lunch tables, and a whole swarm of them would come over to pick up trash and push in chairs and carry away someone else's left-behind juice box or water bottle. When we teach young people that everyone who contributes to our community will prosper, we raise heroes.”
Strange said this development is just as important as what the students learn about art.
"We expect our students to conduct themselves in a way that is compassionate and respectful to one another, to participate fully in everything that they do and to be responsible for their work and their conduct,” he said. "One of the guiding principles of the TCVPA-ELPN programs is that students should not only be introduced to the many diverse wonders of the arts, they should also be encouraged to see themselves as worthy artists and see their lives as worthy subjects. There are so many incredible things out there to learn, but it's about more than that. It's about encouraging and empowering students to be artists in their own right.”
Davis said she also has learned several lessons from interacting with camp participants.
"Love must guide your every word and action, including discipline, which should be prefaced with an explanation of why it is happening and a reminder that mutual respect is revered above all else,” Davis said. "It is important to remember that our artists are young and that they are on the precipice of an entire life. It is our duty to teach them kindness and compassion and respect for one another and the world around them, and finally, that art is a beautiful outgrowth of the human spirit. It teaches us, it represents us, it makes us visible, and it heals us.”
By the end of the week, these same principles were noticeable in the way campers interacted with each other and camp leaders. Davis said it speaks to the importance of programs like ESAC and the impact they have on the rest of the community.
"The campers helped each other open juice boxes and fellowshipped about their art projects,” Davis said. "They practiced their music on the bus every morning and tried to teach one of our volunteer bus drivers some of the songs, too. Places where young people are allowed to be young without fearing for their basic needs are becoming very scarce. I think we instilled a lot of light in our artists, and I hope that the East Side Arts Camp can continue that project.”
She said her hope is that these young artists continue to use art as a form of self-expression, and they reach out to siblings and family and friends to fortify the community with love and respect.
"I hope they lead,” Davis said. "And I hope they lead with light.”
Calculating the impact
In all, the combined number of those reached in the 2016 cycle of programs was 550 students of all ages from six East Lubbock schools. More than 200 participated in afterschool programming, almost 200 participated in field trips to the Texas Tech campus and another 39 attended ESAC. The numbers for 2017 are expected to be even higher as more and more students learn about and apply to the programs.
Strange said initial data shows after-school program participants regularly outperform their peers in grade-point averages by almost half a point and on standardized tests scores, including scoring almost 10 percent higher in mathematics. Participants in the program have self-reported improvements in soft skills like teamwork and time management. Strange said there are plans to track cohorts of students as the programming continues to grow to compare changes in academic achievements, behavioral milestones and the community as a whole.
"The goal is to grow and to keep students coming in and get some of the older students involved,” Strange said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to show what has been shown in a variety of students across the country, that increased art exposure correlates to good academic performance, improved test scores, higher graduation rates and so on.”
The impact of the TCVPA programs has already begun to extend beyond individual student improvement, Strange said. In 2016, Ervin Elementary achieved status as an arts magnet campus, something school administrators said the after-school program helped accomplish.
"We have never had to justify why the arts should matter to others within ELPN,” Strange said. "We have not had to fight to make the arts matter. Leaders at Texas Tech and the community at large have seen the value of what we do and they support us, which is really great.”
Sustaining the programs
Grant funding for ELPN is scheduled to end in 2018, but work has already begun to find ways to sustain and expand the current programs.
"It's been great to have a federal grant, and we are going to continue pursuing additional funds for these and other projects,” Strange said. "But I really would treasure the opportunity to work closely with other local folks because they would be able to see and understand very clearly what we're doing. We're grateful for our collaboration with Lubbock Independent School District and the LHUCA.”
Strange said the TCVPA-ELPN programs and initiatives are a way to show the importance of equity when it comes to resources and opportunities, no matter where they reside in Lubbock. Artists are in a unique position to help lead the charge, he said.
"I think art folks are in tune with people who have been left behind,” Strange said. "They turn to the arts, whether it's music, paint, drawing or performing, because they have an outsider's perspective. They come with a heart for people who may also be on the other side of the bubble. For me, when it comes to art, particularly theater and writing for theater, I'm not as happy when I don't do it. It's important to me, it's opened a lot of doors and I want kids who have that same desire for art to be able to pursue what they want to do and reap the benefits of what expression and creation and exploration can give them.”
He said he hopes ELPN is just the beginning of a rejuvenation of East Lubbock.
"I hope when people see the value of the arts for young people, what great work they can do when given the opportunities and how much it helps them grow, they'll start to put in their own investments, too,” Strange said. "The people and the resources in East Lubbock are worthy of those investments.”