Strengthening Youth through the Arts

Interactives, stories, and collections that go beyond the data
September 30, 2015

Strengthening Youth through the Arts

Evaluation of the Arts Infusion Initiative, 2010-15

Summary of the Urban Institute’s evaluation of the Arts Infusion Initiative (2010-15), commissioned by the National Guild for Community Arts Education with funding from the Chicago Community Trust. For more information, read the complete evaluation report or abbreviated brief, which includes interviews with Arts Infusion youth participants, teaching artists, and community stakeholders. Photograph by WBEZ/Bill Healy of Arts Infusion youth participant in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center’s annual  Louder Than A Bomb poetry competition (2012), reprinted with permission.

What Is the Arts Infusion Initiative?

Launched in 2010, the Arts Infusion Initiative is an ambitious five-year, $2.5 million demonstration for social change in Chicago that aimed to connect detained youth and those at risk for incarceration (“at-risk youth”) to rigorous and engaging arts instruction, infused with social and emotional learning goals. As of the 2014–15 school year, the initiative’s core components included the following:

  1. Fourteen programs from all genres of art—music, dance, literary arts, visual arts, and theatre—that served detained teens in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) and at-risk youth primarily in the Chicago communities of Lawndale/Little Village, Back of the Yards, and South Shore;
  2. Special events and performances for youth in JTDC and the surrounding communities organized by Arts Infusion stakeholders;
  3. Knowledge sharing sessions coordinated by Loyola University to foster collaboration and professional development among the Arts Infusion teaching artists and program directors; and
  4. Assessment consultations with an experienced arts assessment consultant to help programs assess youths’ social and emotional learning goals (see ”Social and Emotional Learning Goals of the Arts Infusion Initiative” below).

Overseeing these activities was the Arts Infusion Steering Committee, created to help guide the initiative’s evolution under an emergent strategy of creative youth development. Chaired by Suzanne Connor, senior program officer at the Chicago Community Trust (funder of the initiative), the steering committee included representatives from JTDC, the Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School based in JTDC, the Chicago Public School Office of Education Options, the Chicago Police Department’s Alternative Policing Strategy program, Loyola University’s College of Fine and Performing Arts, an independent arts assessment consultant, and program directors and teaching artists from the 14 Arts Infusion programs. A list of these programs can be found in the complete evaluation report.

Arts Infusion Program Locations in Chicago

Arts Infusion Program Locations

Note: Large icons show the primary school and community locations of Arts Infusion programming, including the Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School at JTDC where multiple programs were in operation. Small icons show additional locations at which at least some Arts Infusion youth were served.

Social and Emotional Learning Goals of the Arts Infusion Initiative

Social and Emotional Learning Goals of the Arts Infusion Initiative

How Was It Evaluated?

The Urban Institute’s evaluation of the Arts Infusion Initiative, in consultation with the National Guild for Community Arts Education, was designed to assess the degree to which the project, as an emergent model for social change, achieved its intended purposes and to generate actionable information for promoting effective Arts Infusion practices while redirecting those that have been less effective. To accomplish these objectives, the Urban Institute conducted a mixed-method evaluation from April to August 2015 using the following data sources:

  • Five years of Arts Infusion documentation (e.g., teaching unit plans for infusing social and emotional skills instruction, knowledge sharing attendance, and participant feedback);
  • Quantitative analysis of 2014–15 social and emotional youth assessment data (n=320);
  • More than six dozen (n=73) interviews and focus groups with Arts Infusion instructors, program directors, youth participants, and community stakeholders;
  • An online survey assessing stakeholders’ (n=45) perceptions of the initiative, conducted by Urban during the evaluation period; and
  • Observations of more than a dozen Arts Infusion classes, events, and performances, as well as artwork (music, poetry, dance, theatre, and visual art) produced by teen and young adult participants.

The evaluation resulted in seven key findings and several recommendations for promising practices.

Digital music lab created at the launch of the Arts Infusion Initiative (2010).

When I speak, my voice will be more powerful than a gun.

And when I am silent, my thoughts will be louder than a bomb.


-Arts Infusion youth participant in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center’s annual Louder Than A Bomb poetry competition (2012).

What Are the Key Findings?

Key Finding 1

Arts Infusion youth participants showed statistically significant and substantial improvements in social and emotional learning skills, as measured by conflict resolution, future orientation, critical response, and career readiness.

Pre-post assessments (n=320) of Arts Infusion youth participants in the 2014–15 school year showed statistically significant (p<.001) and substantial improvement across all measured social and emotional learning goals, including conflict resolution, future orientation, critical response, and career readiness. Most youth were initially assessed at a “developing” level when beginning Arts Infusion programming and were at near “accomplished” upon completion. Although the research design precludes causal attributions for these improvements, the differences are sizable. The percentages of improvement ranged from 27 percent for conflict resolution and career readiness to 29 percent for critical response and 36 percent for future orientation. Similar improvements were evident for male and female youth, for JTDC and community program settings, and for music, dance, literary arts, visual arts, and theatre genres.

Percentages  of Improvement in Social and Emotional Learning Goals

Percentages of Improvement in Social and Emotional Learning Goals

Note: All improvements were statistically significant at p<.001. Paired samples t-tests were run for 320 pre- and post-assessments from 11 organizations (2014-15). Average time between pre-post was 11 weeks

Key Finding 2

Arts Infusion teaching artists with strong artistic knowledge and classroom management skills were effective at engaging and inspiring youth.

Arts education is not only about the content being delivered but also about who delivers it and how. Many Arts Infusion teaching artists were highly skilled, credentialed, and accomplished in their artistic fields. Fifty-two percent had been arts educators for over 10 years, 46 percent had a graduate degree, and 36 percent had an undergraduate degree. Further, 64 percent had helped justice-involved or at-risk youth for more than five years; 36 percent had been doing so more than 10 years.

Many teaching artists expressed the importance of “art modeling,” or teaching art in a way that youth see it as a living medium, rather than a historical artifact. Because many of the teaching artists shared a similar racial/ethnic or cultural background with students, grew up in Chicago, or were embedded in Arts Infusion neighborhoods, they were able to engage in art modeling by demonstrating the existence and value of art creation by people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, locations, and socioeconomic status. Interviewed youth said they wanted to learn from teachers who "looked like [themselves],” and several teaching artists were alumni of the Arts Infusion programs or had prior experiences with justice involvement.


Performance by youth at Arts Infusion program provider, Latinos Progresando Teatro Americano (2015).

Key Finding 3

The Arts Infusion Initiative helped foster co-creations and collaborations between program directors, public schools, community policing, and the detention facility.

As an emergent strategy for social change, the Arts Infusion Initiative brought together community members, organizations, and institutions to support creative youth development. From the beginning, the initiative developed mechanisms for knowledge sharing and decisionmaking that encouraged co-creation and collaboration, including the formation of the Arts Infusion Steering Committee and the funding of regular knowledge sharing sessions.

Many collaborative relationships emerged from these efforts. Perhaps most significantly, the initiative helped forge a relationship between Arts Infusion stakeholders and JTDC, a historically insular institution. The first substantive example of Arts Infusion co-creation occurred when the initiative’s co-founders at the Chicago Community Trust and the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy program worked together to open a digital music lab at JTDC.

All of these things [the Arts Infusion Initiative does] provide kids with unbelievably important opportunities for self-expression. In a place where kids aren’t gravitating to [programs] being offered to them, they gravitate to this, and it’s really powerful for kids who don’t otherwise have the opportunities to more freely express themselves. - Chicago public school administrator (2015)

Another notable outcome of the initiative is the Chicago public schools’ decision to plan a new Digital Arts Career Academy as an alternative career path for at-risk and court-involved high school youth. This planned co-creation is a direct result of the positive outcomes Arts Infusion youth exhibited in response to the initiative and the trusting relationship forged between Chicago public schools and the Chicago Community Trust.

Key Finding 4

Arts Infusion knowledge sharing sessions and assessment consultations evolved to effectively provide professional development opportunities and increase assessment capabilities of program directors and teaching artists.

Arts Infusion teaching artists, program directors, and other participants in the initiative’s knowledge sharing sessions indicated that sessions were helpful for their own professional growth as well as that of their organizations. During the 2013–14 and 2014–15 school years, an average of 31 individuals across the 14 programs participated in each knowledge sharing session. Participant feedback indicated that knowledge sharing sessions were helpful because they provided a space to "learn about the work others are doing in the field," "to hear stories about the act of teaching," and more generally to "chat and learn from other colleagues."

Many teaching artists reported that sessions on trauma-informed care for youth and mental health were very helpful. However, the most highly rated knowledge sharing sessions pertained to the assessment and measurement of social and emotional learning goals. Interviewed program providers stated that—through individualized consultations—the art assessment expert helped them develop meaningful rubrics and collect more uniform assessment data.

Listen to music and poetry by Arts Infusion youth

Music produced by Arts Infusion youth during Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music program in JTDC and poetry produced during Free Write Jail Arts and Literacy’s program.

Key Finding 5

The Arts Infusion programs succeeded in exposing at-risk youth to new skills and technologies, providing confidence-building experiences that opened their minds to a positive future.

More than 80 percent of Arts Infusion stakeholders said the initiative helped expose most or all participating youth to high performing arts education for the very first time. Further, stakeholders rated the high-quality technological equipment provided by the Arts Infusion Initiative as a 7 out of 10 in importance to inspiring Arts Infusion youth. For the many Arts Infusion programs offering digital music and media arts instruction, the Arts Infusion grants enabled them to purchase—often for the first time—modern, professional-grade equipment, to which many youth had never been exposed.

They show you that there’s more to life than the neighborhood. -Arts Infusion youth participant (2015)

One JTDC youth said the Arts Infusion program helped him realize “I can do more than I was told. If I can do this, then I can do other things… You can be more than what society thinks you are.” Stakeholders also noted several examples of Arts Infusion programming improving youths’ academic achievements and outcomes. For example, one participant doubled his grade point average during his time with the program, and another was so inspired by his exposure to theatre and media arts that he graduated from high school, enrolled in college, and minored in arts media because of the Arts Infusion exposure he had received.

Award-winning documentary by Siskel/Jacobs Productions illustrates the impact of Young Chicago Authors. One featured teen went on to become an exemplary instructor at JTDC, as part of its Arts Infusion programs.

Arts Infusion youth engaged in digital film production with program provider, Free Spirit Youth Media (2014-15).

Key Finding 6

Arts Infusion programs experienced challenges connecting to and engaging youth after their release from detention.

For several reasons, one of the greatest challenges Arts Infusion programs faced was connecting to and engaging with youth who left JTDC and returned to their community. Many youth had little idea how to locate or connect with arts education programs in their community, and many Arts Infusion grantees had no way of knowing when and where to reach youth who were recently released from JTDC, as this information was protected by privacy laws. In addition, several Arts Infusion programs that did not traditionally provide services to at-risk youth had difficulty retaining Arts Infusion youth long term.

Youth who successfully connected to Arts Infusion programs most often did so through a personal mentoring relationship they had developed while in detention. Mentors included Arts Infusion teaching artists who regularly provided programs or coordinated performances in the detention facility, highly involved youth caseworkers, and arts program directors who worked in JTDC but also directed a community-based program.

Beyond the value of human connections, youth who engaged with arts programs after release had been inspired by the arts programming and information available to them before their release. In response, members of the Arts Infusion Steering Committee worked with youth for more than a year to develop a visually stimulating digital DRIVE, now available on the Internet at, to help youth connect to arts programs in the community. In addition, some programs offered stipends for arts apprenticeships and employment in arts-focused summer jobs.

Example of success: Arts Infusion youth participant "Diego" (pseudonym)

After his release from detention, Diego, was introduced to the arts by Arts Infusion teaching artists at the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, working in partnership with the Peace and Education Coalition. His writing and music production flourished, and he has since helped create murals, theater productions, and multimedia programs. Through the Arts Infusion network, Diego was given the opportunity to participate in professional media programming at Street-Level Youth Media. He has since recorded several songs, using his music to give voice to youth like himself.

Key Finding 7

Arts Infusion programs served nearly 750 at-risk youth in 2014–15 at an average cost of $700 per teen; JTDC based programs cost $600 per teen, and community-based programs cost $750 per teen.

To calculate the average cost of Arts Infusion programming per youth served in 2014–15, the Arts Infusion grant money was divided by the number of Arts Infusion youth served during that time, with results rounded for efficient presentation. Across all Arts Infusion programs, including both JTDC and community-based organizations, the average cost per youth served was $700. For this amount, Arts Infusion youth received an average of 20 weeks of programming. For JTDC-based Arts Infusion programs, the average cost per youth served was $600, and for community-based programs, the average cost was $750 per youth served.

Photograph taken outside of Arts Infusion provider BBF Family Services’ facility.

What Promising Practices Emerged?

Lessons learned from the Arts Infusion evaluation lead to several recommendations for promising practices stemming from it and moving forward. These recommendations might apply to the next phase of the initiative itself or to similar efforts to replicate its approach in other cities.

Developing Program Content

Arts education programs designed to improve youths’ social and emotional development should be grounded in a rigorous set of criteria (e.g., well-conceived unit plans, engaging teaching artists, routine assessments of student progress) and—in keeping with the principles of creative youth development—incorporate hands-on learning activities that give youth a voice and a choice of modes for self-expression (Hirzy 2011; Montgomery 2014). Youth responded most positively to arts programs of any genre that engaged them physically and mentally; movement-related activities include opportunities to act out stories, standing during poetry readings and music recordings, and dancing. Arts Infusion youth also appreciated and looked forward to the programs’ culminating performances (e.g., poetry slams, music-listening parties, theatrical performances) and opportunities to display their creative works (e.g., arts gallery presentation, literary anthology) for family, friends, and other supporters—though these may necessitate offering safe transportation to youth.

Arts Infusion programs~ Programs from performances by Arts Infusion youth participating in Storycatchers Theatre and Literature for All of Us (2014-15).

Improving System Fitness

To improve the knowledge, effectiveness, and resilience of all participants—the “system fitness”—in models similar to the Arts Infusion Initiative (Kania, Kramer, and Russell 2014), program directors should work to ensure two main priorities: 1) teaching artists demonstrate a cultural understanding of youths’ vulnerabilities, artistic knowledge and accomplishments, and approachability to youth; and 2) a respectful, safe space for youths’ creative exploration is created and focuses on activities youth enjoy most. To encourage teaching artist retention, greater attention must be paid to compensating them adequately, including paid hourly planning time to participate in professional development and assessment activities. It is also essential that teaching artists be given opportunities—as they routinely were in the Arts Infusion Initiative—to network and learn about other organizations.

My Life Is Filled With

I feel
happy knowing that no matter what obstacles come to confront me,
I will always face them and be willing to learn from them.
I know
that everyone has problems.
I believe
everyone can be happy.
My life is
filled with tears and laughs.

- Poem by Arts Infusion youth participant in Literature for All of Us program (2012–13)

Connecting and Engaging Youth

Given the importance of relationships in all aspects of the initiative’s success, it is critical that a human element help youth connect to and engage with arts programming in their community. Further, programs could attempt to establish a memorandum of understanding with JTDC to find out youths’ release and contact information whenever available. Given the ubiquity of youths’ use of digital technology and presence on social media (Pew Research Center 2015), it also appears critical to expand recruitment and retention efforts using the most appropriate forms of social media; Facebook and Twitter may reach the most diverse audiences (Family and Youth Services Bureau 2014). Finally, it might be useful to consider funding paid arts apprenticeships for which youth can apply before their release from detention. Such an opportunity would create a guaranteed source of income for youth upon release and a safe space for them as they reintegrate into the community.

In conclusion, education, juvenile justice, and family and youth services can benefit tremendously from the emergent approaches embodied in the Arts Infusion Initiative and from the efforts of the many Arts Infusion stakeholders, teaching artists, and youth. As one participating program director so aptly said, “Art is a tool for healing and a means for youth to tell their stories, connect with each other, and build community trust,” indicating why such programs are critical to communities’ strategies for intervening with at-risk youth moving forward.

Performance by Arts Infusion youth participating in Kuumba Lynx dance program (2015).



About the evaluator

The nonprofit Urban Institute is dedicated to elevating the debate on social and economic policy. For nearly five decades, Urban’s scholars have conducted research and offered evidence-based solutions that improve lives and strengthen communities across a rapidly urbanizing world. Their objective research helps expand opportunities for all, reduce hardship among the most vulnerable, and strengthen the effectiveness of the public sector. The Urban Institute conducted this evaluation of the Arts Infusion Initiative. Authors of this brief are Jennifer Yahner, Jeanette Hussemann, Caroline Ross, Annie Gurvis, Ellen Paddock, Carla Vasquez-Noriega, and Lilly Yu.

Chicago Community Trust

About the funder

The Chicago Community Trust is a community foundation dedicated to improving its region through strategic grant making, civic engagement, and inspiring philanthropy. As businesses, local governments, and organizations strive to solve pressing challenges, the Trust brings these key actors together to spur necessary collaboration. Through its Arts and Culture program, the Trust supports the unparalleled opportunities arts offer to engage residents and bring the community together. It is committed to enhancing access for adults, students, artists, and audiences who are underserved and underrepresented, while working with colleagues to identify and fill gaps. The Chicago Community Trust conceived of, spearheaded through an emergent model approach, and funded the Arts Infusion Initiative and its evaluation.

National Guild for Community Arts Education

About the evaluation manager

The National Guild for Community Arts Education supports and advances access to lifelong learning opportunities in the arts. Working collaboratively with a broad range of practitioners and stakeholders within and beyond the arts and education sectors, the National Guild builds the capacity of community arts education providers to 1) deliver quality programs that are sustainable and equitable; 2) secure greater financial support; and 3) contribute to systemic change to ensure all people have access to arts education. They do this by providing professional development and information resources, ongoing networking opportunities, and leadership development for current and future arts education leaders. They also work to increase awareness and support for community arts education and investment in the field by developing strategic partnerships and leveraging the assets of current and emerging leaders in the field. The National Guild managed the evaluation contract and provided oversight and consultation throughout the process.

Copyright © September 2015. Chicago Community Trust, with permission for reproduction granted to the Urban Institute and the National Guild for Community Arts Education. Cover image from gallery show of Arts Infusion youth artwork by Free Write Jail Arts and Literacy.