Genesis of Kaleidoscope in the Schools
The germination of KITS evolved out of a compelling conversation that sprang up in arts circles in the US over 20 years ago. Studies at that time suggested that children under the age of 10 who saw a performing arts performance, be it music, theatre or dance, were more tolerant of their peers. This resulted in a flurry of funding in the US for youth access to the arts in the 1980’s – much of which now is virtually gone – and a curiosity by artists and arts organizations to understand the roots of this tolerant outcome. Anecdotal evidence points to the fact that a collective live performance allows children to talk about what they experienced together with others around them, regardless of their ethnic background, economic status, age, social status or other factors that may normally limit conversation with peers.
Since that time, there have been many studies that look at the impact of the arts on children. In 2019, Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research found that arts in education and access to the arts positively impacts literacy and creative writing, conceptual analysis, and behavioral issues with disconnected children. Based on multiple projects in major cities in the US including Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and others, they also found that there is a growing importance of partnerships between schools and professional cultural institutions in delivering arts activities. However these partnerships did not last as arts organizations were more focused on transactional field trips rather than over-arching curriculum goals, teacher professional development needs, and sustaining ongoing relationships. (Bowen and Kisida, 2019, p.7).
In 2016, The Arts Council (Ireland) launched a study “Growing up in Ireland” which, while not primarily focused on the arts, ended up with a number of recommendations around enhancing one’s childhood through arts participation and experiences. It found that access to the arts was influenced by a number of factors, including economics and parental interest. However, as report author Dr. Emer Smyth notes, decisions made in publicly-funded institutions such as education are key to democratizing access to the arts, and have a direct impact on the creativity of children growing up (p.35).
In 2011, Dr. Rena Upitis, Professor of Arts Education at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario prepared a report for the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario which examined educational policy, teacher education, historic practice in arts education, and the degree to which arts in education impacts a child’s scholastic development. Professor Upitis commented on the intersecting factors that affect arts delivery: teachers as generalists, the need for skilled support for teachers to deliver on arts learning, curriculum requirements, and integrating creative practice into the classroom in other subjects. When commenting on a successful model, Upitis noted:
“…it is a blend of true partnerships between generalist teachers, specialist teachers, arts subjects, and art-makers of all kinds that is most likely to yield the richest arts education for the developing child.” (p. ii)
Inspired by academic studies, and with 20 years’ experience working as a senior arts administrator, Executive Director Suzanne Haines has always looked to build partnerships with families and educators to bring the arts to children, inspiring their development as creative humans. Through her work in other communities, Suzanne has partnered with schools and school boards to deliver arts curriculum through specially-built programming. The Aurora Cultural Centre has all the necessary ingredients to move forward: established relationships with the school boards, a roster of school-aged programming, and an established audience base with the Kaleidoscope Family Series built through a decade of programming by Communications & Events Manager, Jane Taylor.
The Aurora Cultural Centre feels a strong responsibility to ensure that arts experiences are available to all children regardless of their background. Scholarly data and widely held anecdotal evidence confirms that these experiences can shape a child’s values, open them up to new ideas and cultures, and create more compassionate responses as they grow to be the next generation of leaders. Elementary schools and teachers are constantly seeking out innovative and exciting methods of meeting curriculum goals, even while facing funding cuts to arts programs. This is a void that can be filled by external organizations who specialize in programming excellence in this area.
To create a delivery model for KITS, the team identified and addressed several barriers in delivering the program during the preliminary research phase. We worked with board partners from across York Region who have schools in Aurora: York Region District School Board, York Catholic District School Board, and Conseil scolaire catholique MonAvenir (French Catholic School Board). The population of students in JK to Grade 4 in each school precluded using the Centre’s 150-seat performance hall. Schools also reported logistical and financial difficulties in taking students offsite to access the performing arts. This confirmed that we would present KITS in each of the 16 schools across our community. The next step was reducing any barriers to access for students with exceptionalities and behavioural challenges. With our decade of experience delivering arts programming and summer camps to children, we were aware of the particular impacts faced by these children when adjusting to new surroundings. Our discussions with the boards confirmed that for these students, schools were already a welcoming and known environment. When addressing the costs associated with the program, we recognized a cognitive dissonance between the perception of Aurora as an affluent community, and the economic reality that is more stratified and diverse. Research presented by our board partners confirmed this fact. To ensure democratized access to this program across the entire community regardless of socio-economic status, the Centre committed to fully supporting the program to remove financial barriers for parents.
Finally, the Centre recognized that teachers in the elementary stream are often generalists with little arts curriculum training. To address this barrier faced by the teaching community, the program needed to include a fully-supported professional development component that addressed both incorporating the arts into the wider curriculum in order to engage students through these methods, and to support students seeing and engaging with performing arts presentations. Working in partnership with Young People’s Theatre in Toronto, we received valuable start-up information, access to their professional arts facilitators to deliver our teacher professional development, and encouragement to work together as KITS develops. Through careful consideration during this pilot phase, we acknowledged and addressed these barriers to the best of our abilities in order to ensure universal access to our programs.
One goal of the Aurora Cultural Centre’s Inspire, Engage & Transform 2018-2021 strategic plan is to deliver professional performing and visual arts programming while supporting community engagement, education, and community arts practice. The KITS initiative allows us to develop a stronger partnership with local elementary schools, and to engage with students in a new way. Arts programs in schools help teach children to express themselves, to take risks, and to learn about other cultural traditions. Kaleidoscope in the Schools programming fosters a connection to arts that is needed within our local schools.
Together, compelling scholarly studies, productive conversations with our local boards and the children’s performing arts community, and experiences of management at the Aurora Cultural Centre informed the ultimate program design.