Interview With Mario Rossero: Making A Difference In The Lives Of Chicago’s Youth In CPS

June 24, 2014 - 13 minutes read

Birk.Creative is all about making a difference with the work we do and that feeling has never been in greater evidence than through our work with the Chicago Department of Arts Education and its leader, Mario Rossero, Director of the Arts.

We are working with Rossero and his team as their creative consulting firm and engagement strategist. Their department is geared toward making sure the arts have a seat at the table at all levels throughout Chicago Public Schools (CPS). So, we took time recently to sit down with Rossero and talk about his grand vision: how it’s played out since its inception in 2012, where it is now, and the future of the department as seen by Rossero. (CPS Art Department staff  pictured with world renowned musician Yo Yo Ma.)

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From The Beginning

“We’re basically in the second year of implementation for the Arts Education Plan. It was crafted in 2012 and approved by the board in November, 2012, and we’ve been implementing key initiatives over the last two years to build the foundation, mostly building internal systems and advocacy,” says Rossero. “[The plan] is the first of its kind in the district. It’s a collection of 26 recommendations under six key goals, so we strategically packaged all those into the Creative Schools Initiative.

“First part: insuring every school has an arts liaison. There are currently 658 schools and 556 arts liaisons. They are current staff at schools across the city who agree to take on this additional responsibility,” says Rossero. “They are the go-to person for the arts at their school. Their most critical role is collecting and reporting data on what the school has invested in the arts and they are the principal’s right hand. They champion art at school, collect data, and work with principals to put this data on the creative schools survey.

“Last year we had nearly 400 schools complete and now we have 91 percent of schools in the program. We utilize liaisons and surveys to collect data and that goes onto the public facing school report cards. The goal of the art program is to increase equity and access to art for every child in every school, then we needed to create an accountability and incentive system to get schools to take the action,” continues Rossero. “By putting it on the schools’ score card, it increases the value of the arts. It’s right there with the academic data. If a parent wants to see how their school is doing with the arts, they can refer to the report card and/or touch base with the liaison. Schools with liaison and data become available for additional funding to support gaps in their arts education.”

A key component of making all this happen: active support and participation by the principal of each school. “Principals are the most critical. They are making staff, partnership and budgetary decisions. You need all those in place for the arts to exist at the school. In terms of impact, we’re internally changing the conversation about the arts. It’s kind of hard to see from the outside, but the arts are no longer isolated,” says Rossero. “The arts have a seat at the table at the school and district level when we’re considering facilities, overall budget, plus professional development and training.”

Classroom By Classroom

The other critical component: the arts liaisons. “Through the arts liaisons, the info campaign is much stronger. Parents know more of what’s going on at schools, kids have more activities, more connections with partners throughout the city,” says Rossero. “We have the foundation built and the right things in place, so now it’s about implementing and supporting at the classroom level.

“The district-wide program is in place and the principals are actively participating. Now, it’s about getting into the classrooms to make sure things are understood and implemented, and we’re closing in on whatever gaps may exist,” says Rossero. “The arts plan sets a baseline expectation for the arts for the first time at every school. They can always go deeper or further if they choose but that brings into question quality, so now it’s time to work on quality of curriculum, programs, and work on core art standards.

“The standards are ‘the what,’ so we need to support ‘the how.’ How are teachers planning for units and lessons? How do you create quality partnerships? Schools have usually had individual relationships with arts partners,” says Rossero. “Now we have a common baseline and end goal but it’s not one size fits all. Schools can tailor their arts program to their communities and needs.” This will also help identify specific community needs. “Do we have critical mass, are we oversaturated, where are the gaps and deserts? Getting schools close to each other to collaborate and share resources is also important,” says Rossero, who goes on to note that the arts program of each school is anchored by a certified teacher and the partnerships are supplemental.

Being Prepared Pays Dividends

“When the city came to the district with a potential $25-million investment of TIF surplus funds, the arts were immediately a candidate for those dollars because we had a plan and were able to receive $10.5 million to bring in new arts teachers,” says Rossero. “This allocation also communicates the value CPS places on the arts. The key is making arts core and it means we have dedicated minutes of instruction in K-8. We’ve been able to give very clear staffing expectation guidance for the art teachers.

It’s important to note that this entire program started with a blank page that has been filled with concrete planning and action from Rossero and his team. That has been made possible thanks to support from the citizens of Chicago, who have proven they place real importance on the artistic education of our youth.

“Thirty years ago, because of budget cuts, the district eliminated the arts and they’ve been adding them back in throughout the last 30 years. So many teachers, principals, partners, and funders, have been fighting for this,” says Rossero. “They’ve built this foundation for us to be successful, but what pushed us over the edge was when Michelle Boone’s cultural plan was being formulated and citizens said, ‘We’re concerned about the arts across the city but we’re most concerned about arts in our public education system.’ The leaders at the top listened and opened every door to us and engaged in the conversation to create the plan with our stakeholders, so this is really created by citizens—and it’s powerful.”

Leadership, Vision & Inspiration

Rossero’s life has been one long trip bringing him to this place at this time. “I always wanted to be an artist when I was a kid. I drew constantly. We lived way out in the country and I wanted to pursue the arts but, when I went to college, I was exploring education as well,” says Rossero. “I learned I loved teaching as much as art and was able to marry the two together. I taught in multiple different kinds of school districts: rural, suburban, urban.

“I’m really driven by fairness and inclusivity and believe every student deserves a full education and I know the arts reached me in a way that other content areas did not. The students that are having a hard time attending regularly, being motivated, connecting ideas in different subjects, solving problems—the arts have the ability to reach those kids, touch those kids, give them the tools they need. We’re trying to make this investment in every child non-negotiable, [arts education] should be the right of every child.”

Though it’s completely fair to say Rossero’s vision, experience and energy have driven the process, it takes a collection of like-minded individuals to make something this important happen. “I worked to create a team of nimble, agile, smart individuals that could serve every school and every community,” says Rossero. “We’re always going to be small but we need to be mighty. We need to service each school’s arts needs. I can’t just have a music expert that only serves music needs and the art expert will be there in a month, so I need people to work across art forms, to consult, diagnose and prescribe on the spot. Each member of my team has a huge amount of tasks on their shoulders and we serve the ALL. My team is driven to serve all students and the entire system. This could easily have been a pilot for a small group of schools to test the waters, but this plan is about every school in the CPS system.”

The End Result

And it’s working. “CPS has amazing art stories happening right now. Every day there is some tremendous performance or piece of artwork, a triumph for a teacher or a new partnership formed,” says Rossero. “There are so many great stories happening and those don’t get out there enough, so my big ask is that the community changes the conversation to celebrate what we do have and use that to focus on getting more. The conversation to celebrate what we do have and use that to focus on getting more.

Learn more about the CPS Department of Arts Education and lend your support wherever possible. Together, we can all make a difference in the lives of the youth of Chicago, ALL of them.