Seattle Office of Arts & Culture Arts Education: Road to The Creative Advantage

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 12/16/2013
  • Essay 10683

This is a snapshot history of the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture's leadership in providing quality arts education to students in Seattle public schools. The Office of Arts & Culture was established in 2002 as the Mayor's Office of Arts & Culture. It developed out of an earlier entity called the Municipal Arts Commission (founded in 1971). Arts education has always been an important function of the Office of Arts & Culture. In 2013, the Office of Arts & Culture, the Seattle Arts Commission, and The Seattle Foundation announced a rebranded partnership, The Creative Advantage, which aims to provide all Seattle public-school students with access to a continuum of arts classes by 2020.

Importance of Arts Education

Arts education is especially vital for young people who have limited access to all kinds of opportunities outside the classroom. Studies have shown that children whose education includes exposure to the arts earn more A's, have higher test scores, win more academic achievement awards, and have better school attendance records, as compared to children whose schooling includes little or no arts education. For high school students whose home life has included poverty, parental job loss, or other difficulties, arts education greatly improves graduation rates.

Arts education not only works to give students opportunities to create art in many forms and to appreciate as audience members the artistic work of others, it also has the ability to provide students with skills such as perseverance, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration that will allow them to lead in the future. Additionally, the arts can be a powerful economic development tool -- training the innovative workers and leaders of tomorrow through arts education today.

The Office of Arts & Culture's arts education program initiatives stem from the understanding that exposure to and knowledge of all aspects of the arts is an essential part of growing an educationally balanced citizen. In 2008, the commission partnered with K-12 level Seattle public schools to bring art experiences to students in the classroom and to expose students to art throughout the community.

Arts Audit

In 2008-2009, Seattle Public Schools conducted the first-ever arts education audit of the city's public schools. The audit found that arts teaching and other arts activities in the schools were modest and were carried out in a fragmented manner. Although Seattle school principals valued arts education, instructional levels were below that needed to meet Washington State Essential Academic Learning Requirements. When students were presented with arts education programming, it tended to be in the visual arts, followed by music. Theater and dance instruction were found to be negligible district-wide. The district employed teachers who were certified to teach arts at a much lower level than the employment ratio for non-arts teachers.  

The audit also found that the distribution of arts teachers throughout the school system was inconsistent. Many individual schools were utilizing creative methods to bring arts education to their school, but these efforts were intermittent and mostly limited to elementary schools. The barriers to teaching the arts and meeting learning standards differed between elementary, middle, and high schools, but the over-arching barrier was lack of sustained funding. Also, decisions about arts education were being made individually by each school, not district-wide. 

Parents, the audit discovered, participated willingly in their support of arts education at their children's schools by attending arts events. This was true district-wide. And individual schools that had implemented their own arts education programs were extremely proud of those programs, and enthusiastic about adding to them. 

Further Study

In 2011, the city and school district received a $1 million Wallace Foundation grant to assess the state of arts education in Seattle public schools and to create a comprehensive arts-education plan for those schools. The plan called for enabling all Seattle public-school students to receive at least two hours of arts instruction per week by 2020. At the time, students in some schools were already meeting this standard, but many students, especially students in low-income areas, were not. 

During the 2011-2012 school year, arts education in Seattle's public schools was further studied and study participants were interviewed extensively. Secondary student arts-enrollment data was scrutinized using 4,000 student records from 2006-2012. Key findings included the news that more than 40 percent of K-3 students were receiving no instruction from a certified arts teacher, and 71 percent of K-5 students who did have such a teacher saw that teacher for 30 minutes or fewer each week. 

Perhaps most troubling, data from these surveys uncovered a strong correlation between race/ethnicity and lack of arts education: Black, Hispanic, and Asian students were overrepresented in schools that completely lacked music instruction. On the high school level, students who took less than the average number of arts courses were overrepresented in the following categories: free or reduced lunch status, higher discipline counts, bilingual, and Black, Hispanic, or American Indian/Alaskan Native (Arts Access and Cohort Analysis Report). 

Seattle Arts Stakeholders and Community Partnership

In 2012, a group identified as Seattle Arts Stakeholders participated in an online study to determine which two of the primary four arts disciplines (dance, music, theater, or visual arts) community members wanted to see prioritized when the new arts education programming was implemented. Community members also had the opportunity to participate in workshops and focus groups held throughout the city. These investigations found a hunger in the community for equal arts education district-wide, and for an arts curriculum that was multi-cultural, relevant to students, broad in scope, and integrated with other content areas. Students who participated in these investigations wanted exposure to all four disciplines, the ability to perform, and access to information about careers in the arts (Seattle Arts Stakeholder Engagement Report). 

Also during 2012, focus groups from schools, community organizations, and teaching artists were surveyed about ways to improve partnerships between Seattle schools and community organizations. Respondents cited the need for increased funding to support such partnerships, the need for arts programming that was better organized and that exposed students to concepts for a longer duration, and the need to increase the level of collaboration in such partnerships. 

Counselors working with middle-school and high-school students participated in surveys exploring how class-scheduling requirements might potentially bar student access to arts classes. This investigation highlighted the difficulty of meeting high student interest with arts classes in an environment where the funding cycle for those classes lagged behind scheduling requirements. 

Additional Funds

On May 14, 2013, Seattle mayor Mike McGinn (b. 1959) announced that the city of Seattle would donate an additional $500,000 to Seattle Public Schools in order that students in the Central District could have access to at least two hours of arts education each week. The city was able to fund the donation because admission taxes (collected on tickets to events) had been higher than expected, producing additional revenue. The funds were also used to equip classrooms with art supplies and with musical instruments. The city's donation was to be dispersed over the next two years.  

On August 30, 2013, Seattle Office of Arts & Culture director Randy Engstrom (b. 1977) announced that the existing arts-education partnership between Arts & Culture, Seattle Public Schools, the Seattle Arts Commission, and the Seattle Foundation would henceforth be known as The Creative Advantage. The partnership unveiled a new website,, that would disperse information about the project, accept donations, and track the project's progress. 


Currently (autumn 2013) The Creative Advantage is beginning to implement school-based arts planning in selected groups of Seattle public schools.  Arts leadership coaches will work with implementation teams in 13 Central Seattle schools: Bailey Gatzert Elementary, Leschi Elementary, Lowell Elementary,  John Muir Elementary, Thurgood Marshall Elementary, McGilvra Elementary, Montlake Elementary, Stevens Elementary, Madrona K-8, Washington Middle School, Seattle World School, Nova High School, and Garfield High School. These implementation teams will include principals, arts teachers, non-arts teachers, school leaders, families, and community partners. 

Current plans are for The Creative Advantage to add additional schools by region on a yearly basis. Seattle Public Schools will support this process by providing teachers with professional development opportunities, with planning support, and by providing access to The Creative Advantage arts partners (teaching artists, Arts Corps, Arts Ed Washington, Seattle Art Museum, and Puget Sound Educational Service District).

Sources: Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle Arts Commission/Office of Arts & Culture" (by Peter Blecha, revised and updated by Paula Becker), (accessed October 12, 2013); The Creative Advantage website accessed October 15, 2013 (; "City Adds $500K for Arts Education," The Seattle Times, May 16, 2013, p. B-4; Jonathan Zwickel, "Creative Class," City Arts website accessed November 26, 2013 (; "The Arts," Seattle Public Schools website accessed November 26, 2013 (; "Arts Access Survey and Cohort Analysis Report," Seattle Public Schools website accessed December 5, 2013 (
File/Departmental%20Content/ arts/
20Preliminary%20Data%20and%20BERC%20report%20July%202012.pdf?sessionid=2396b7ff23a564e422ead850e0c75544); "Seattle Arts Stakeholder Engagement Report," Seattle Public Schools website accessed December 5, 2013 (

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