EDIT 10:59 PM 1/28/16: I would like to make absolutely clear that After School Matters and the Advanced Arts Education Program are two completely separate programs, with separate funding and separate administrative teams. I know this is confusing, considering they share a building and many of the instructors teach both. I apologize for the confusion. After School Matters is NOT being cancelled. The Advanced Arts Education Program is.
The first time academic pressure made me feel suicidal was in sixth grade. So when I say I won’t allow Gallery 37 to quietly die, it’s because Gallery 37 saved my life.
Yesterday I received a flurry of messages from my own beloved instructors and artist friends who are currently teaching in the Advanced Arts Education Program (AAEP) at Gallery 37, a FREE arts college preparatory program through CPS.
Yesterday morning, a close friend high in AAEP administration told me that all AAEP programming will be ending in June. I looked at my phone and felt a wound open and yawn in my chest. I tried my best to not burst into tears on my way to work. “Tell folks so they know about this, okay,” she asked.
So of course, I immediately dove into the internet to see what information I could find. Considering AAEP is a world-renowned program, modeled by public education systems all over the country and in many cities in Europe, you’d think that someone would have a lot to say about this. When I was a student there, we were visited by the President of Ireland, the Queen of Jordan, and education experts from around the world who were enthralled and excited by what we were doing. And yet, when the mayor’s office decides to pluck this jewel from the city’s crown…nothing. Radio silence. I thought, okay, maybe the news cycle needs another 24 hours to catch on this and then maybe I’ll find some information. Woke up this morning, and still nothing. No announcement on the AAEP website. No press release from CPS Department of Arts Education. In fact, heartbreakingly, you can still apply for next year on the AAEP website.
So I guess I’m that person who has a lot to say. Because the silence around this tells me that the board of ed and the mayor’s office would love nothing more than to drown this program like a kitten, with little or no resistance. They’d love to tell you how they suddenly found millions of dollars in the next budget meeting, while conveniently forgetting to mention that this money will come from ending an essential program for teens. And I refuse to let that happen.
Let me start by saying that AAEP is a program unlike any free art program in the country. AAEP provides AP and double-honors arts classes for CPS high school students. Students travel from their home-base schools every day to the Gallery 37 Center for the Arts in the Loop. There they work in a range of arts, from television and video to dance. The instructors are some of the city’s best artists themselves: dancers from Joffrey ballet, actors from Steppenwolf, acclaimed Chicago painters who have had illustrious retrospectives in the famous Cultural Center. Now that I am a professional artist who has gone on to art school, I can say that Gallery 37 has artistic facilities that rival the best art schools in the country. Admissions administrators from all the big-kahunas: Julliard, RISD, MICA, Parsons, New School, SCAD, Cal-Arts, PAFA, Cooper Union–schools so famous that they are recognizable to those outside the arts–would come to Gallery 37 and “recruit,” not unlike coaches travelling to cherry-pick prize varsity athletes for their sports teams. Cooper Union, considered by many to be the most prestigious art school in the country, boasted one Gallery 37 student a year. Students launched into teen artist residency programs like the Mary Walsh Sharpe project in Colorado, or master classes at Interlochen. Every year at least one student was sent to Miami to receive honors in the National Young Arts Awards. There was a yearly trip to Italy, literally giving students the chance to see the world.
The murder of AAEP began with beheading the program. The Manager of the Advanced Arts Program, Helen McElroy, was unceremoniously dismissed mid-school year as a casualty of CPS budget cuts. And not just any time of year, but one of the most sensitive times for seniors: smack-dab in the middle of scholarship application season.
In 2012 I worked alongside Ms. McElroy as a printmaking instructor for After School Matters (ASM). ASM is an after-school jobs training program that is separate from AAEP, but they share a building (and often share instructors). As a former admissions expert at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, McElroy’s number one priority at all times was making sure that every teen in that building had a decent chance at a college education. Even though the teens in my program were completely unrelated to her already heavy workload, she took it upon herself to visit my classroom and let teens know about deadlines and scholarships they were eligible for. Often times when I visited the administrative floor, she was instructing a group of teens through their applications, even letting teens use her computer and her desk when all others were full. If I know anything about her, I know she is devastated to be removed from these teens during this delicate time in their college application process.
A teaching artist at AAEP who would prefer to remain anonymous told me, “To say that It’s been a really heavy week at Gallery 37 is putting it mildly. The administration, or what’s left of it after they got rid of our boss, is not handling the situation well either. It’s beyond frustrating. It seems that there’s nothing to be done, at least from our end, which is not entirely unfamiliar behavior from CPS these days. We as teachers can’t help but feel like we’ve failed our students.” Students and teachers alike are distraught over the sudden loss of McElroy. “We’re to finish out the year and it’s going to be so much harder having to start a new narrative with an interim person during all this chaos. Not to mention so many students had a personal relationship with her, and were mid-conversation about colleges and scholarships.”
Needless to say, the loss of an individual with so much insight into the art world and application process is huge to these teens. Most of the teens in programs at Gallery 37 are underprivileged and living in poverty. Many are the first generation in their families to apply for college. And when they are applying to schools like Parsons or RISD, they are competing with teens from schools like Wilmette’s New Trier (the Alma Mater of Mayor 1% Rahm, by the by) most of whom have parents with advanced degrees, who have constant access to application counselors, or can even afford to hire college application specialists. These kids were already starting this race with an uphill hike. Not to mention that the application process for the arts is vastly different from traditional academic applications. Most require elaborate portfolio presentations in addition to essays, demo reels, or video auditions. Very few academic counselors in Chicago (in the few schools that actually have academic counselors) know how to navigate these complex applications. Losing McElroy during this extremely delicate time could be game-changing for these teens. Gallery 37 is a program that closes the privilege gap in Chicago’s art world. While predominantly white and middle-class schools in nearby suburbs like ETHS and Niles West have nationally acclaimed arts programs, programs that even compare are few and far between in Chicago. In fact, the existence of AAEP has been used as reason enough to end arts programs in many high schools. The reasoning being,if the kids are talented and want to pursue the arts, send them downtown.
Some argue that AAEP was bound to be cut because arts programs are too expensive. I’m sorry, but you know what was too expensive? DePaul’s new sports facility, paid with millions of dollars in TIFs filtered out of the school system, was too expensive. The overall cost of drop-outs on tax-payers is too expensive. Allowing the school system to be run by a self-admitted crook who robbed the school of millions was too expensive. In Ben Joravsky’s great piece in the Reader yesterday, “There’s Always Money in the Mayor’s ‘Banana Stand,'” he highlights how there always seems to be magical money that materializes out of thin air when Rahm has a pet project, or in the case of the DuSable student protesters, to get rid of an annoying problem.
I’ll close by sharing my own personal Gallery 37 story, because it is not unique. Nearly every student who has been touched by Gallery 37 has a similar story.
As I said, academic performance was one of many factors that drove me to attempt suicide when I was a teen. Due to a whirlwind of factors too complicated to dive into here, I was extremely emotionally unstable and required constant care. There were multiple hospitalizations. In junior high, I was moved to the school where my mother worked so that she could oversee my care and administer my medication, most of which were heavy sedatives that kept me from hurting myself. I went from being a star student to having a string of D’s and F’s. In high school, where I wasn’t under the constant watch of my parents, things got tougher. I had developed generalized anxiety and panic disorder. Because of my medications, which were necessary so that I wasn’t a danger to myself, I completely disassociated from class. I was teased for the strange way I spoke and acted due to my medication, even by teachers. One day, in my first period class, a teacher singled me out because I was so lethargic that I couldn’t read a text-book passage out loud. My hands went numb and I blacked out into a panic attack. That was the last time I went to that class.
Every morning I would wake up nauseous, and every morning I would get on the train with the full intention of going to class. I told myself I wasn’t that kind of kid; I certainly didn’t want to be. But as my train stop approached, I couldn’t make myself get off the train. Sometimes I would ride around the loop a couple of times and then go back to school after first period. Sometimes I would ride the train all day. If you’re a parent or a teacher in Chicago, I think you know how this story usually ends. Thankfully, mine took a better turn.
My parents ain’t no chumps. My mother, Michelle Gunderson, is a nationally acclaimed teacher and has a masters degree in child development. Little did she know that her biggest challenge as a teacher would be her own child. She is a pioneer of bringing compassionate care into the classroom, in no small part due to her experience as my parent. My parents were my constant advocates, my father going to weekly meetings with school counselors and my teachers. This was ten years ago, just at the cusp of people deciding to take mental illness in teens seriously. But most old-school disciplinarians hadn’t caught on (read: there hadn’t been any major lawsuits yet to make them pay attention). My parents had to work very hard to insist to teachers, counselors and even the principal that my mental illness was more than bad behavior; that I required care and compassion from my teachers, not ridicule. It fell on mostly deaf ears. My school saw me as a constant problem, a truant, and a disappointment. I wasn’t going to graduate on time, if I graduated at all. I was dismissed as a failure.
One counselor, however, agreed with my parents and undertook weeks of testing and counseling to get to the root of my school problems. In one session, when we were talking about a difficult topic, I started to nervously doodle. “Hey, can I see that?” I handed her the notebook. “Wow,” she said. “Wow… may I borrow this?” She took my notebook and showed it to the art teacher. They hatched a plan: if I could get my grades up to at least C’s by the midterm, I could apply for AAEP. And that’s when I met Miriam Socoloff, a teacher who fostered an entire creative movement of young Chicago artists through her work with AAEP and After School Matters (ASM). I’m in the company of hundreds of students when I say she was the single person who would have the largest sustaining impact on my life.
At Gallery 37 I felt accepted and appreciated as a person who was different instead of a problem to be solved. Miriam saw me as a sweet kid who sincerely wanted to do well, instead of a lazy deadbeat who skipped class. My parents decided a home-learning environment would be more conducive to facilitating my care, so I would book-study in the morning and then travel downtown in the afternoon. Miriam saw the flower in me and drew it out with soft guidance. Within weeks, I flourished. As my self-esteem grew, my anxiety and out-letting behaviors (more commonly known as “cutting”) disappeared. I was no longer suicidal. My doctors agreed that I could be taken off of my medication. Thanks to Miriam and thanks to AAEP, I caught up academically and not only got my GED, but received a merit scholarship from PAFA, the oldest and one of the most revered art academies in the country.
This isn’t a story about my own personal triumph. I’m not here to tell you a “bootstraps” narrative. This is a story about how the entire network of individuals at AAEP held me up and helped me become a productive member of society. And I am one of hundreds. Speaking to my friends from Gallery 37, these were sentences said over and over by alum after alum:
“Gallery 37 saved my life.”
“I wouldn’t have been able to graduate without Gallery 37.”
“Gallery 37 prepared me to compete in the professional world.”
Together, we won’t allow this program to quietly fade away. Tonight, January 28th, Rahm Emanuel will appear on WTTW’s talk show, “Chicago Tonight.” On the WTTW website you can submit questions for the mayor. We deserve answers for why this world-wide lauded program is being cut with little or no ceremony or communication with students.
DuSable students were able to create change in their environment through protest. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time for a draw-in. A dance-in. A choral mic-check. It’s no secret that the loudest protesters of Rahm Emanuel have been artistic youth, from protesting CPS budget cuts to justice for Rekia and Laquan. It’s time to make a big, beautiful noise. It’s time to be Rahm’s next annoying problem.