#WeAllDeserveArts: Karla Estela Rivera – Executive Director, Free Street Theater

November 13, 2020

This past week, Free Street Theater opened our virtual show, Re-Writing the Declaration – a play that calls on its cast (Black women, femmes and gender non-conforming people of color) and audiences to re-write one of this country’s founding documents in ways that centers and includes the very humans its pages has left out. This devised, participatory play unleashes the possibility of what can be when we allow ourselves the opportunity to reimagine what our world looks like and who it prioritizes. 

Re-imaginings should not be relegated to artistic craft. In these times, we’ve collectively had to re-write and re-imagine plans, programming, and pivot our work to meet the needs of our artists, audiences, and students. At the heart of these pivots is creative collaboration – an element that not only plays a critical role in the artistic process, but should be doubly critical as we move forward in advocating for and making policy decisions. 

On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law. Embedded in this re-writing of policy was a call for every state to have a system of school accountability and support, with considerable flexibility in how they design their system. Under ESSA, states can look beyond traditional academic indicators of performance, such as test scores, and consider multiple, holistic indicators of school quality and student success. Included was also the clear identification of the arts as an essential part of a well-rounded education, and a civil right for our students.

This was a tough concept for some folks to wrap their mind around when it came to the Illinois ESSA Fine Arts Indicator. In fact, when it was initially included in the statewide accountability plan (after months of advocacy by organizations like Arts Alliance Illinois, Ingenuity and other artists, educators, students, and arts leaders), it was weighted at 0% until a thoughtful measure was developed. 

In Illinois, Dr. Jason Helfer, Deputy Superintendent for Instructional Education at the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) charged the Fine Arts Indicator Work Group to be audacious in our thinking. Our work group, helmed by myself as director of public affairs at Ingenuity, Inc. and Jonathan VanderBrug, deputy director of civic engagement at Arts Alliance Illinois, wrestled with an important question: How does one meaningfully measure a critical key to unlocking the learning potential of so many students when it comes in so many disciplines and modes of delivery? 

We can learn a lot from devised theatre. At its heart is the building of an ensemble and a process wherein every member serves an essential contributor. This same approach was applied when we embarked on the development of the Illinois indicator. Building an “ensemble” of work group members from across the state, whom represented nearly every facet of the learning experience – students, educators, administrators, superintendents, labor unions, and data scientists – who were diverse in their lenses, disciplines, communities, and access to resources was a top priority in ensuring that we had as many representative voices in the room. 

Over the course of a year, this “ensemble” developed group agreements both for our process and for the indicator itself to help ensure that our students were prioritized as we ventured into this new world we were devising.

With over 500 combined hours of conversation over the course of a year, and after conducting the most extensive analysis to date of Illinois statewide arts education data to date, the work group narrowed the measure down from 42 potential measures to one composite measure:

  • The arts indicator is distinct, like other subject-specific indicators such as science proficiency, rather than being grouped with other learning areas.
  • The arts indicator will be weighted at 5% (5 points of 100).
  • And it consists of three sub-measures:
    • 3% – Participation – Student participation in arts coursework (which reflects students’ actual engagement rather than simply measuring access)
    • 2% – Quality – Measuring the quality of that learning by considering the qualifications of the teachers providing arts instruction.
    • 0% – Student Voice – Student perceptions of their arts learning via survey, which is weighted at 0%, as a placeholder, in recognition that such a survey is still pending development.

After two years of development and advocacy, our recommendation was unanimously adopted by the Illinois State Board of Education – a first in the nation that includes accountability for both elementary and high schools. When the measure is ultimately implemented in SY22-23, we will not only be able to see if and how schools are providing arts courses, but we will also be able to fully understand the arts education landscape across the state. This can help bolster case-making for the inclusion of the arts in state accountability systems nationally. It also serves as a call for all of us to continue to think creatively and audaciously about how we can best meet the needs of our young people, and that how it looks may be wildly different from the containers which currently exist in our collective systems.

ESSA serves as a call for arts education practitioners across the country to imagine a world where we not only have a seat at the table, but that including the arts as part of state accountability systems effectively changes how that table is now built. I encourage you all to look at the state of arts education in your respective communities and ask yourself, “How can we re-write, and re-imagine how the arts are included in our state’s education policies?”

Baltimore City Public Schools Fine Arts is an act that is good and getting better in spite of challenges, some historic, others due to the pandemic. Given the enormity of having to make an immediate shift in how we instruct in fine arts disciplines, our teachers rose to, and met the challenge of virtual instruction with fervor and grace. It seems only fitting that during National Arts in Education Week the real superheroes are highlighted and celebrated for their courageous efforts to go where no arts teacher in this lifetime has gone before… the virtual arts instruction frontier. I have the immense pleasure of working with a little over 200 visual and performing arts rockstars that rallied together to discuss, write and implement new curricula that would support a new way of teaching and learning. Our students and our teachers have been asked to do what was thought to be the impossible: engage in meaningful arts instruction without the interpersonal connections that fine arts teachers and their students thrive upon. Although we are just two weeks in for virtual instruction our teachers and students are making the best of our current situation.

Fitted with curricula that emphasize student voice and is reflective of artists with whom students can relate I think that we are well on our way to soaring beyond where even our imaginations can take us. While I could write pages about the challenges that we push against on a daily basis, I thought it more appropriate to herald the 200+ sliver linings I find in my work and 79,187 reasons I have to keep pushing for equity in arts opportunities for Baltimore City Public Schools. #WeAllDeserveArts.


Karla Estela Rivera (She/Her/Hers) is a writer, performer, activist, and arts advocate who has leveraged her gift of storytelling to uplift and create opportunities for, with, and in underserved communities. She is the Executive Director of Free Street Theater and a company member of 2nd Story in Chicago. Karla has served non-profit organizations for over a decade in roles spanning from teaching artist and youth worker to systems-level leadership in public affairs. She recently served as the co-chair of the Illinois Fine Arts Indicator work group which developed the nation’s first weighted accountability measure for the arts as part of the Illinois Every Student Succeeds Act plan. She is a native of Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, and holds a BA from Columbia College Chicago with graduate studies at New York University.

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