Americans for the Arts: YouthArtsArts Programs for Youth at Risk: The Handbook
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About YouthARTSProgram PlanningTeam TrainingEvaluationCosts, Resources & Advocacy
About YouthARTS


You've probably seen the bumper sticker "Art Saves Lives."

Arts agencies across the country have for many years provided arts programs for youth at risk of juvenile delinquency and other behavioral problems, with the assumption that these programs can alter the course of troubled lives.

In 1995, for the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, Americans for the Arts surveyed representatives from more than 600 such programs around the nation. The organization found that while there was abundant anecdotal evidence of "success stories" among art programs for at-risk youth, there was little statistical evidence that these arts programs can enhance youth development.

That same year, our consortium of three arts agencies—the Regional Arts & Culture Council in Portland, Oregon; Fulton County Arts Council in Atlanta; and the City of San Antonio Department of Arts and Cultural Affairs—along with Americans for the Arts, began a collaborative research effort on arts programming for youth at risk.

This consortium, known as the YouthARTS Development Project, had seven primary goals:

  1. to define the critical elements and "best practices" of arts programs designed for at-risk youth populations
  2. to design and test program evaluation methodologies
  3. to conduct a rigorous evaluation at three pilot sites of the impact of arts programs on adolescent behavior and the risk and protective factors associated with behavioral problems and delinquency
  4. to design and test models of professional development and training that prepare artists to work with at-risk youth populations and that prepare artists, social service staff, juvenile justice professionals, and educators to work collaboratively in developing and implementing arts programs for youth at risk
  5. to strengthen collaborative relationships among local and federal partners
  6. to disseminate "best practice" models to arts, social service, and juvenile justice program providers nationwide
  7. to leverage increased funding for at-risk youth programs

To meet these goals, we at YouthARTS began by conducting a field scan of the literature on arts-based youth programming. Next, we interviewed representatives from model programs around the country in order to identify "best practices." Third, we conducted focus groups with artists and social workers in each of the three cities involved in the YouthARTS project. Fourth, we reviewed the juvenile justice literature on risk- and protection-focused prevention and intervention—which would become the underpinnings of the YouthARTS approach: to develop programs that are designed to reduce risk factors, while increasing protective factors.

Then, using this newly gained knowledge, the three arts agencies in the YouthARTS project either designed and implemented a new program for at-risk youth populations, or modified an existing program. Finally, each site gathered data to support a national evaluation of its program's effects on participants' knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors.

We recognized that implementing effective programs for at-risk youth required close collaborations at different levels of community. Administrators at the three arts agencies in the YouthARTS project invested considerable time and energy into the development of collaborative arrangements with schools, juvenile justice departments, social service agencies, and community-based groups that serve at-risk youth populations. As a result, we were able to develop programs that were well-integrated with existing programs and services. The emphasis we placed on collaboration and integration also reflected our awareness that involvement in the arts is one small part of a youth's life and that to make a real impact on the youth, arts programs need to be aware of other factors that influence the youth's behavior and affect his or her experiences.

Through our evaluation of program outcomes at the three test sites, YouthARTS showed that arts programs really can have an impact on youth. Not only can such programs enhance young peoples' attitudes about themselves and their futures, but the programs also can increase academic achievement and decrease delinquent behavior. (A follow-up evaluation is being conducted to determine if the programs have a lasting impact on youth participants.)

The toolkit

Several existing publications do an excellent job of describing the achievements of arts programs designed for youth at risk, and information on artist training recently has been published as well. However, arts agencies, juvenile justice agencies, social service organizations, and other community-based organizations need more detailed information about how to plan, run, provide training, and evaluate arts programs for at-risk youth. The materials in this toolkit are designed to help. The toolkit contains the many lessons learned in Portland, San Antonio, and Atlanta about establishing, maintaining, and evaluating arts programs for youth at risk.

Defining terms

For a full list of terms used in YouthARTS, please see the Glossary.

The YouthARTS demonstration sites

The three programs in the YouthARTS Development Project—Art-at-Work (Fulton County, Georgia), Urban smARTS (San Antonio), and Youth Arts Public Art (Portland, Oregon)—are discussed throughout the site. These programs provide three distinct models of arts programs for at-risk youth and incorporate best practices from arts programs around the country. They serve as illustrations of how you can plan, implement, and evaluate your own successful arts program.

More about the three demonstration sites:

Best practices

Research for the YouthARTS Development Project involved interviews and focus groups with representatives from arts programs for youth at risk, and a review of the literature on arts programs and juvenile justice theories and programs. From this research, many best practices emerged. Early on, these findings were incorporated into the arts programs developed by the three YouthARTS demonstration sites.

More about the findings is available in the Best Practices section.

In conclusion

"I liked sending a message. I liked being a role model. I liked the responsibility. I learned that I can stick with things. I learned I can do things I don't normally do. I've started doing more. It wasn't perfect, but I did a good job. Something that I finished paid off. It looked good when it was done. We all did it as a team—I couldn't have done it without them."

—comments made by a youth participant, recorded during an evaluation interview, Youth Arts Public Art

This quote echoes the entire YouthArts Project team's feelings about our work together. This three-year adventure was exhilarating, purposeful, challenging, and rewarding in ways that few other projects can be. It is particularly gratifying that we have reached our two most important goals: demonstrating the efficacy of arts-based youth programs, and preparing this toolkit to assist our arts, education, juvenile justice, and social service colleagues throughout the country in developing and improving arts programs for youth at risk. Along the way our belief in the power of this work has been amplified tremendously.

Before YouthARTS, we had limited knowledge of the language and practices of our social service and juvenile justice partners. Though we and others could see that arts programs were affecting how youth felt about themselves and their ability to make positive changes in their own lives, we could not adequately describe how or why this was so.

Through this project, at the local and national level, we learned one another's terminology and approach. The steep learning curve we faced in adapting our program design and evaluation methodologies to the risk-and-protective-factor framework has paid off with the evidence of the impact of arts programs on youths' skills, attitudes, and behaviors—and in our ability to disseminate the best practices we have documented in our own work and the work of others. The arts community is now joining our education, social service, and justice system partners in a commitment to bridge the gap between science and practice.

Lessons we've learned

Looking back, there are a few lessons arising from our work that have particular resonance. These lessons provide the central messages that we offer to those conducting this type of work.

We work in a milieu where collaboration is essential, where no single response is likely to turn a troubled life around, where no single agency or program can hope to address the multiple challenges that youth at risk face. It behooves us to approach this work holistically, with wide vision and a clear and consistent commitment to the long slow work of collaboration.

We learned that using a planning model—an interactive and proactive planning tool that promotes collaboration—is an excellent framework to tie together all of the program elements and chart a road map for a successful program.

Team training helps to build an effective and enduring collaboration and is the means by which all players gain an understanding of the critical features and "rules" of one anothers' domain.

We learned the importance of outcomes-based planning and evaluation and the need for more studies to refine the knowledge base that we have begun to build. However, we realize that not all programs can afford a well-planned outcome evaluation with comparison groups. For these programs, we have provided effective process evaluation methods that can be used to develop a continuous feedback loop that enables constant monitoring and improvement of programs.

Running arts programs for youth at risk is costly and labor-intensive work, especially compared to the costs of other arts programs an agency may offer. The important cost comparison, however, is between arts programs and the costs of counseling, incarceration, and other societal and human costs of juvenile delinquency.

YouthARTS tomorrow

The YouthArts Toolkit is designed to assist agencies in designing and documenting effective arts programs for youth at risk, but it has other, related applications. The planning model presented herein can be used to support the development of effective funding proposals. Funders, likewise, can use the list of critical elements and best practices to inform their grant and program evaluation criteria. We hope the kit will prove helpful to other partners as well.

The fundamental hypothesis underlying the YouthArts project has been articulated in a dramatic and audacious way in the now famous bumper sticker, "Art Saves Lives." We believe this to be true to the core of our being—and now we have more proof, and more tools at our fingertips. Our work and the work of Shirley Brice Heath, James Catterall, and others suggests that the arts can provide a particularly powerful tool to engage youth and spark their curiosity and commitment; enhance thinking and problem solving skills; set high standards of quality, success, and achievement; provide opportunities to make tangible contributions to the group and the community and be recognized for those contributions; promote constructive peer and mentor relations through teamwork, decision-making, and critique sessions; create a working environment featuring clear roles and responsibilities; and allow risk-taking in a safe and supportive environment.

The arts open the door to self-reflection and self-expression. They provide the literal means for one of the most important tasks our youth face: to pose and wrestle with questions about the very direction of their lives.

We all take heart and courage in the importance and value of this work and look forward to continuing existing partnerships and developing new ones.

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