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Do Community Arts Programs Promote Positive Youth Development?


Robin Wright 1, M.S.W., Ph.D., Associate Professor, Lindsay John 2, Ph.D., M.S.W., M.Sc., Ramona Alaggia 3, M.S.W., Ph.D., Eric Duku 4, M.Sc., P.Stat., Tanya Morton 3, M.S.W., Ph.D. Candidate
1 School of Social Work, University of Windsor;2 John Associates;3 Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON;4 Offord Centre for Child Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON



This study reports on the multi-method longitudinal examination of a structured arts program (combination of theatre, visual and media arts) for youth, aged 9 to 15 years, from a low-income community in Hillsborough County in Tampa, Florida. Evaluated were the extent to which the community-based organization could recruit and retain youth in the program and whether they demonstrated improvement with respect to artistic ability and psychosocial indicators. The results suggest successful recruitment and sustained attendance rates. The study employed a multilevel growth curve analyses of observational and behavioral outcomes which showed significant gains in artistic and social skills, and a significant reduction in emotional problems. The contention that community arts programs promote positive youth development is supported by this study.


This article reports on a multi-method evaluation of the Tampa Arts and Youth Demonstration Project (TAYDP) conducted over two years in three sites in Hillsborough County in Tampa, Florida. The TAYDP was launched to: (a) explore the extent to which a community-based arts organization can successfully recruit, engage and retain youths from low-income communities (9-15 years old) throughout a 9-month after-school program; (b) assess the youths’ in-program progress in terms of artistic and social skills development; (c) ascertain if community-based arts programs have demonstrated positive results in improving the psychosocial outcomes such as conduct and emotional problems; and (d) explore the perspectives of the youth and parents who participated in the program. The multi-method evaluation strategy involved standardized instruments, attendance records, observational data in the form of a behaviour checklist and interviews with youths and parents.

Literature Review

Concerns about the well-being of youth growing up in low-income neighborhoods have given rise to an increasing focus on after-school programs as settings for these youth to engage in activities designed to promote healthy development (Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Mahoney, Larson & Eccles, 2005; Roth, Brooks-Gunn, Murray & Foster, 1998). Evidence gathered in the United States and Canada indicates that youth who participate in after-school programs show improved psychosocial functioning (Wright, John, Offord, Duku, Rowe & Ellenbogen, 2006; Scott-Little, Hamann & Jurs, 2002), better academic achievement (Pierce, Hamm, & Vandell, 1999), and more positive self-concept (Quane & Rankin, 2001). Until recently, most of the evidence on the benefits of after-school programs has derived from studies of correlations between participation and hypothesized outcomes. Moreover, the literature has not convincingly demonstrated how after-school programs can enhance outcomes for children and youth in low-income neighborhoods (Quane & Rankin, 2001).

Despite growing interest in community arts programs, little is known about their effectiveness in preventing and attenuating juvenile problems, teaching art skills (Clawson & Coolbaugh, 2001), the relationship between program participation and youth development (Weitz, 1996), engaging, recruiting and sustaining youths involvement, and most importantly the perceptions of the youth and the parents who participate in these programs. The Rand Corporation, after a comprehensive review of existing evaluation research on the impact of arts-based programs for at-risk youth, concluded that interesting arts programs were abound, but few provided good evaluations of their outcomes (McArthur & Law, 1996). Although they report that there is some evidence to substantiate the idea that arts-based programs could foster desirable outcomes, both the quantity and quality of existing programs make it difficult to verify the programs.

The evaluations that have been conducted to date have focused on three areas, namely, school-based arts programs, after-school programs, and community-based arts programs. For example, Catterall, Chapleau and Iwanaga (1999) analyzed data from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS: 88) to determine the relationship between involvement in the arts and academic achievement. The results indicated that students involved in school arts curriculum became more creative, had lower drop-out rates, improved social skills, and had higher academic achievement; and those coming from poorer families who were involved with the arts improved academically more than those from similar socio-economic backgrounds not involved in the arts. Similarly, Heath and Roach (1998), using the same database, reported that youth who participate in the arts compared to those who did not were four times more likely to participate in science and math fairs, three times more likely to win awards for attendance, and twice as likely to win academic achievement awards. Although these studies identified some encouraging results, as correlational studies, they were limited in their generalizability (Winner & Cooper, 2000). A three-year study conducted in Canadian schools (Upitis & Smithrim, 2003) improved upon the designs in the above studies in that it compared students in schools with art curriculum to control schools without art curriculum. The findings showed that students in schools with art curriculum when compared to students in schools without art curriculum improved on math tests. However, once household income was entered in a regression analysis, that finding was no longer significant.

Several literature reviews have been conducted on the impact of after-school programs on both student academic outcomes and to a lesser degree non-academic functioning (Fashola, 1998; Eccles & Templeton, 2002; Scott-Little et al., 2002; Hollister, 2003; Bodilly & Beckett, 2005). These authors concluded that the story emerging from the literature showed promise to enhance academic achievement and social and emotional outcomes (Eccles & Templeton, 2002). However, in each case they identified that further research was needed to draw firm conclusions about the effectiveness of after-school programs (Scott-Little et al., 2002; Bodilly & Beckett, 2005). Specifically, they identified that the research in this area was still young and inconsistent, with few experimental studies, little data on implementation and process issues, and little similarity in the evaluated outcomes between the studies (Fashola, 1998; Eccles & Templeton, 2002; Scott-Little et al., 2002; Hollister, 2003; Bodilly & Beckett, 2005).

Most relevant to this article are those community after-school programs that have art activities as the major focus. There are three studies that fit this category that have targeted mostly low-income or at-risk youth. A Canadian study examined the benefits of participation for low-income youth of the National Arts and Youth Demonstration Project (NAYDP), a structured, intensive after-school arts program (Wright, John, Offord et al., 2006). This program represents one of the few well-controlled evaluations of after-school arts programs for low-income youth. Findings from this study showed that community-based organizations successfully recruited and retained youth from low-income communities in after-school arts programs and that the youth actively participated. Results also showed that, in terms of in-program functioning, participating youths made statistically significant gains in artistic and social skills. When compared to a control group obtained through propensity matching (Rubin & Thomas, 1996) from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, the youths showed statistically significant improvements in emotional problems (Wright, John, Offord et al., 2006).

In the Youth ARTS Development Project (Clawson & Coolbaugh, 2001), a cross-site evaluation was conducted in three locations on an arts-based programs targeting at-risk youth (e.g., with juvenile records). The effects of the program were examined 22 months after participation. Unfortunately, the impact of the study was compromised by difficulties that emerged with the design, small sample sizes, uneven data collection, and program instability. In another study, Mason and Chuang (2001) conducted the Kumba Kids Program, a culturally-based after-school arts program for low-income youth in Rochester, New York. They concluded that the program showed promise in increasing youth’s self-esteem, social skills, and leadership competencies, however, the weak design, lack of randomization and small sample size limit the generalizability of the findings. Although the findings from these reviews are relevant for the purpose of this article, it is clear that research specifically on after-school community-based arts programs is almost non-existent (Mason & Chuang, 2001). The findings from the available research suggest that community-based after-school art programs can have positive effects on youths’ emotional and behaviour problems. The findings also show that after-school programs may have some degree of impact on juvenile delinquency. However, there is still insufficient evidence to conclude that after-school art programs can be an effective strategy for crime prevention with adolescents. In an attempt to add to the literature, the goal of this article is to report the results of a multi-method evaluation that explores whether community arts programs promote positive youth development, and to identify what features of the programs are key to their success.


The project is an exploratory descriptive multi-method study, with both a quantitative and a qualitative component. The outcome component and main thrust of the research is a quantitative study, based on growth trajectory, using hierarchical linear modeling as the analytical strategy. The qualitative component is concerned with the perceptions of the participating youth and parents. The latter is deemed important for corroborating the quantitative findings and for future program planning and development.

The community-based organization implementing the arts programs was located within Hillsborough County, a low-income community in the Tampa Bay region with a predominantly African-American and Puerto Rican population. The targeted community had a high rate of transience, unemployment, single mothers, and drug-related crimes. In prevention research and evaluations, it is often difficult to implement randomized control-group designs. Thus, non-probability-purposive sampling was used in this study. There was a focus on recruiting youth, 9 to 15 years of age, from the underserved community. As at-risk children are typically underrepresented in arts programs (Offord, Hanna, & Hoult, 1998), research assistants completed a community mapping exercise by listing the best places to reach these youth, e.g., schools, parenting resources, community-based organizations, parks and recreation community centers, and housing developments/apartment complexes. A total of 111 youth participated in the study.

Three after-school arts programs were offered by age group: theatre arts (9-11 year olds), visual arts (12-13 year olds), and media arts (14-15 year olds). Each program offered two 90-minute sessions a week, over a nine-month period, from September 2003 to May 2004. The arts curricula featured skill development and social goals that were achievable and increased in complexity and challenge. At each site, the arts sessions were conducted by a lead instructor, one or two assistants and an on-site research assistant. In an effort to overcome barriers to participation, the program, materials, snacks and transportation to and from the site were offered free of charge. The program also promoted parental involvement by providing regular updates on youth absences and behaviour.

As previously mentioned, the multi-method evaluation strategy included attendance forms, standardized behaviour checklists completed by youth, parents and research assistants, as well as interviews with the youth and parents. Youth and parent questionnaires, measuring conduct and emotional problems were administered before the start of the program in September 2003 (baseline), after each three-month program term, and a follow-up six months after the end of the program for a total of five data collection periods. Youth completed the questionnaires during the art sessions. The research assistants met with the parents in their home or at a place convenient to them to complete the questionnaires. Also, observational data were collected six times (twice per term) by the research assistant using an instrument measuring the participants’ in-program behaviour such as participation, art skills development, prosocial skills development and task completion. All measures were selected from the National Longitudinal Survey on Children and Youth Cycle 3 (Statistics Canada, 1999), and are described, with their internal consistencies, in Table 1.

Table 1. Measures Used in the Study

Candidate Variables Description
Observational Measures
Participation Three-item scale measuring enjoyment of and engagement in activities
Art Skills Development Two-item scale measuring whether youth meets goals and shows improvement
Prosocial Skills Development 12-item scale measuring self-control, communication, respect, cooperation, and problem solving
Task Completion Seven-item scale measuring listening skills and work habits
Outcome Measures
Conduct Problems Seven-item scale measuring bullying, getting into fights, and vandalism
Emotional Problems Eight-item scale measuring unhappiness, depression and anxiety

Upon completion of the arts programs, interviews were conducted with youths and their parents to augment and clarify aspects of the quantitative results by exploring their experiences in the program. Based on purposive sampling, a sub-sample of 10 youth was randomly selected to be interviewed. To get an accurate commentary of program processes, we selected only youths whose attendance in the arts program was equal to the site’s average or higher. Cluster sampling by gender was utilized prior to randomization to reflect the 1 female to 1 male ratio at the end of the program in June 2004. A total of 18 interviews were conducted with participating youth (11) from the three programs, and their parents (7) to compare their feedback. The qualitative component employed the Long-Interview method, a qualitative methodology that is well suited to uncovering and describing multifaceted processes (McCracken, 1988). All interviews were videotaped and/or audio-taped and transcribed verbatim.

Analytical Strategy
The amount and direction of changes in the observational and behavioral outcomes were addressed with a multi-level growth curve analysis (Willett, Singer & Martin, 1998) using the Hierarchical Linear Modeling (HLM) software (Raudenbush, Bryk, Cheong & Congdon, 2001). The analysis for evaluating the effects of the arts programs on the observational outcomes of youth in the arts programs, namely art skills and prosocial skills development, participation and task completion, is achieved by regressing each outcome, measured repeatedly, on time, represented by the age of the youths at each assessment. Similar to the modeling for the observational outcomes, the growth curves assessing the behavioral outcomes in the ‘Youth Self-report’ models also used as time, the repeated measurement on age at assessment. It should be noted that ages at assessment were centered at the mean age of the sample, 12.6 years.

With respect to the qualitative data analysis, all interviews were transcribed, reviewed and cleaned in preparation for analysis. Initial coding and categorizing was conducted on a sub-sample of interviews from each stakeholder group through line-by-line micro-analysis employing an established five-stage procedure wherein the data were scanned, edited, refined and reassembled (McCracken, 1988). Themes were extracted, and interpretations made based on emerging categories of the study data that resulted in the development of a coding framework. After the initial coding framework was developed, the transcribed interviews were imported into N*Vivo, a software package commonly utilized in the analysis of qualitative data, and then coded along the developed framework. Within this process, trained multiple coders were employed for testing of inter-rater reliability on coding and consistency of category development. A sub-sample of interviews was coded independently by different coders and themes were developed and reviewed until satisfactory agreement was reached.


The results are presented as follows: (a) sample description; (b) attendance rates in the program; (c) observational outcomes, namely, participation, art skills development, prosocial skills development and task completion; (d) behavioral outcomes, namely, conduct and emotional problems; and (e) program recommendations. Results from the parent and youth interviews will be presented throughout the section to add detail to the quantitative findings.

Sample Description
At the time of recruitment, 67.8% of the sample was between 9-11 yrs of age (theatre arts program), 26.2% between 12-13 yrs of age (visual arts program), 6% between 14-15 yrs of age (media arts program). Approximately 65% were girls and 35% were boys.
As reported by the PMK (person/parent most knowledgeable), the sample was predominantly Black or African American (60.4%), and Puerto Rican (20.9%). More than half of the PMK were in a two-parent household (56.3%), either married (49.4%), common law (2.3%), or living with a partner (4.6%). Single parent status accounted for 43.7% of the sample, with the breakdown as follows: single (never married; 19.5%), widowed (4.6%), separated (6.9%), or divorced (12.6%). Thirty-four percent of the parents reported they were high school dropouts. Applying the Federal Registrar of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS, 2004) poverty guidelines to the children and families in TAYDP, results show that of the families who answered the income and household questions, 75% were living in poverty with income less than or equal to $18,850.

Responses from the youth and parent interviews indicated that youth enrolled in the arts programs for a number of different reasons: (a) the art media to be taught; (b) the opportunity to learn and develop skills; (c) the opportunity for positive social interaction; (d) the program was a safe and secure place to spend time after school; and (e) the program was free and offered transportation. As one parent expressed, “because I didn’t have any money and my kids needed something to get them off the street and the program was free.”

Attendance Rates in the Program
Table 2 describes the mean of youth’s attendance by gender and Term. The children and youth who dropped out of the program are not included in the analysis. The number of participants per Term is displayed in the table, as are those for all Terms. As can be seen in Table 2, there was an increase in attendance for both boys and girls across the Terms, from an average of 60.5% of sessions attended in Term 1 to 72.4% in Term 3.

Table 2. Attendance Rates of Participating Youth

% Sessions % Attending 50% of % Attending 75% of
Attended classes or more classes or more
Term 1, N=33
Term 2, N=30
Term 3, N=22

We asked the youth and their parents what they liked about the arts programs. What were the program elements that contributed to their sustained participation? The findings from the interviews show that program supports such as the program, snacks and transportation being offered free of charge facilitated participation. Next, the youth reported that they greatly enjoyed the choice and variety of art activities. Parents described specific arts activities as helpful; for example, it was indicated that “drama was good for shy and out-going children” and “visual arts improved skills.”

Many of the youth commented that the staff members were fun, acted natural, and showed them how to do things rather than just “telling them to do it.” Parents expressed their appreciation for the efforts that staff made to keep them informed about the program. They also described program staff as really caring. In the words of one parent, “They pay attention to what I say…they are interested in the person they’re dealing with, or the kids, and that’s great.” Parents also indicated that the arts programs were well-structured.

Observational Outcomes
As shown in Figure 1, for the ‘art skills development’ outcome, the baseline for the sample is 5.28 (SE=.27). The average growth rate is 0.04 (SE=.007) per year and is statistically significant (p < .01). This indicates that a youth of average age, 12.6 years, starts with a mean score of 5.28 and progresses, from baseline, at a rate of 0.04 from assessment to assessment, for a total of 0.36 throughout the program. For the ‘participation’ observational outcome, boys, of average age, start at a mean of 7.21 (SE=.49). Girls start slightly lower at 6.64 (SE=0.64). As can be seen, there is a slight deceleration in participation before an important acceleration during adolescence. The growth rate is statistically significant (p < .01). As can be seen in Figure 1, the task completion and social skills observational outcomes also show statistically significant improvements (p < .01).

Figure 1. Growth Curve Modeling of Observational Outcomes of Youth Behavior in Arts Program.

Art Skills Development Program Participation
Task Completion Prosocial Skills Development


Conduct and Emotional Problems Outcomes
Conduct problems were charted on a seven-point scale measuring children’s antisocial behavior (e.g. getting into fights, bullying, vandalism, etc.). Higher scores indicate more behavioral problems (Statistics Canada, 1999). For ease of interpretation, we rescaled the conduct problem outcome to vary from 0 to 10.
As can be seen from Figure 2, once we separated the conduct problem responses by gender, boys scored higher on scale but they decreased at a faster rate than girls. This decrease is statistically significant (p<.05). At the end of the programs, their scores are more or less identical to that of girls.

Figure 2. Growth Curve Modeling of Conduct Problems, by Gender.


The emotional problems outcome (e.g. unhappiness, depression, anxiety, etc.) was measured on an eight-point scale (Statistics Canada, 1999). As with the conduct problems scale, the emotional problem one was rescaled to a range of 0 to 10. Higher scores indicate more emotional problems.

Figure 3 shows the program effect on emotional problems by gender. As can be seen, boys show a significant decrease in emotional problems with older girls scoring higher than older boys. That decrease is statistically significant (p<.05).


Figure 3. Growth Curve Modeling of Emotional Problems, by Gender.

Youth and their parents were asked about the benefits of participating in the program. Responses indicated that the youth acquired a wide range of benefits as a result of their participation. First, the youth mentioned knowledge and skills they acquired in the different arts media, such as “doing the plays and videotapes,” “learning computer programs like PhotoShop,” “experimenting with colors and designs” and “how to draw and paint better.” In addition, youth mentioned that they enjoyed learning about Africa and African culture, as one expressed, “There’s more African culture than I thought, I learned more about Africa and what their old tradition was.”

Youth also indicated that the arts programs enhanced their ability to learn. The following quotes provide evidence of this: “I liked that it gave us challenges and kept me focused ... it helped me to learn more” and “to get a better vocabulary and understanding.” According to another youth, “I learned things like if you mess up, just go away and try again.”

The youth indicated that the arts programs gave them something to talk about and share with siblings and caregivers. According to one youth, “When I show my art to my mom, she’s all happy and hang it up.” The quality of peer interaction in the groups ranged from very positive to very difficult. When the youth got along well the experience was highly enjoyable, “What I like best is that everybody in the class got along with each other.” Parents also reported that youth had developed communication skills that enhanced parent/child interactions and peer relations. As one parent described, “It helped them develop their communication skills as far as relating to one another and other people.”

Parent and Youth Recommendations for Future Programming

There were two main recommendations made by the youth and parents. First, they recommended that the organization provide reliable transportation. Unfortunately, after recruitment was completed, the geographic boundaries for the program were changed, resulting in many youth dropping out of the program. Also, transportation was not provided for a number of children for the first three months of the program. This was mainly due to the complexity of organizing transportation for youth who attended schools outside of the community. Parents were upset that transportation was not consistently provided. In some cases this meant that their children could not attend.

Next, parents said they would have liked more written information from program staff because children often forgot verbal instructions. Finally, youth spoke of the difficulties that staff experienced in managing the difficult behaviors of youth. Many parents also expressed concern with the aggressive behaviors and swearing by some youth. As one youth noted, “They [other youth participants] were coming and picking on other people, talking about the teachers and disrupting the class and causing problems for the class. We just couldn’t get through any of the activities because she [teacher] would always [have to] stop.”

Study Limitations

As with any study, there are limitations that need to be considered when interpreting the findings. This study had three limitations. First, the study did not have a control group. However, the study is a replication of the Canadian National Arts & Youth Demonstration Project (NAYDP) that obtained a control group from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth through propensity matching (Rubin & Thomas, 1996). As previously mentioned in the literature review, the youths showed statistically significant improvements in emotional problems when compared to the control group (Wright, John, Offord et al., 2006). We compared the NAYDP participants to the youth in the present study (Wright, John, Duku & Rowe, 2006). We first matched the American and Canadian cohorts on relevant baseline covariates using estimated linear propensity scores. We then performed multilevel growth curve analyses to assess the effects of the programs on the two matched cohorts. Results showed successful balancing on the covariates for the two samples. Estimated program effects showed similarities in growth trajectories for both cohorts on conduct problems, and emotional problems (Wright, John, Offord et al., 2006).

Another limitation involves rater bias with respect to the observational measures completed by the research assistants who may have been aware of the desired outcomes of the study. However, research assistants were reminded that their rating was by no means a reflection of the arts instructors’ performance. Finally, the sample chosen for the qualitative interviews were determined by selecting youth and parents who were identified as high attendees. This group was seen to have the most exposure to the program and, therefore, represent the most motivated and positively predisposed to the program.


The results from the Tampa Arts & Youth Demonstration project have shown that youth and their parents are highly interested in participating in arts programs. However, as the age breakdown of the sample has shown, it was easier to recruit for the 9-11 year old group than for the 14-15 year old group. A more targeted outreach strategy for teenagers would therefore be recommended. The high interest in the arts program is encouraging. When we first introduced the program to community leaders, we were told that youth and their parents would much prefer a sports program and that there would be very little interest in the arts. In fact, most parents welcomed the idea of exposing their children in the arts, and saw it as a valuable opportunity to learn new skills. It refutes some of the assumptions that are made about families from low-income communities. Kerisit and St-Amand (1995) in addressing issues of community enrichment began with the assumption that poor communities and the families living in them have a sense of survival. This sense of survival could refute the prevailing view that depicts them as being dependent, unmotivated and dysfunctional.
Second, youth will participate willingly in the program if barriers such as program cost and transportation are addressed. As we have seen in this study, lack of transportation was the major obstacle to sustained participation. This is consistent with other studies that state that a key factor in increasing the engagement of families involves the reduction of certain obstacles to their participation, and the provision of incentives for involvement (McMahon, Slough & Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group, 1996; Weisman & Gottfredson, 2001; Murry et al., 2004). In addition, the positive rapport between project staff and participants, initiated with face-to-face recruitment and maintained through phone calls, appears to have enhanced retention rates (Sullivan, Rumptz, Campbell, Eby, & Davidson, 1996).

Next, as identified in the results section, the data from the observational and outcome measures showed statistically significant trajectories and indicated that the youth showed an improvement over the nine-month period with respect to art and social skill development as well as a reduction in conduct and emotional problems. Parents also corroborated these findings in the qualitative research and reported an increase in the youth’s confidence and self-esteem, improved interpersonal skills, positive peer interaction, increased independence, improved conflict resolution and problem solving skills, and skill acquisition in the arts activities. The contention that community arts programs promote positive youth development is supported by this study. However, the study’s lack of a control group and small sample size limit the strength of the results. Nonetheless, these findings add to the research evidence on the effects of community arts programs on youth from low-income communities.


The findings from the Tampa Arts & Youth Demonstration Project support the contention that community-based arts programs are a viable approach to engaging youth (Delgado, 2000). The study also demonstrates important guidelines and practices for developing, implementing and evaluating community-based after-school programs. To further inform policymakers and practitioners, more research is needed on: (a) a more targeted population of at-risk youth; (b) comparing different arts media; (c) comparing different levels of duration and intensity of arts programming; and (d) the long-term effects of the program on the youth’s psychosocial functioning.


This research was supported by the Department of Juvenile Justice, Tallahassee, Florida.


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Author Note

This work was generously supported by funds from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. We would like to thank the youth, parents, arts instructors, research assistants and managers who participated in the study.


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