The Creative Advantage, a Seattle Public Schools arts program, expands to include 81 schools on September 2, 2020.

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 8/31/2022
  • Essay 22544
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On September 2, 2020, The Creative Advantage arts program, a citywide initiative dedicated to eliminating gaps in access to arts education, expands to include 81 schools in the Seattle Public School District. The program grows out of a needs assessment analysis completed in 2012 that found that race and ethnicity were the greatest predictors of whether a student has access to an arts education. A comprehensive plan to address disparities was developed, and The Creative Advantage program was launched in 2013 with 13 schools participating. The program is a collaborative effort of Seattle Public Schools, the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, the Seattle Foundation, and more than 100 community artists, cultural groups, and arts organizations.

Launching The Creative Advantage

Since 2007, Seattle Public Schools and the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture have partnered to improve equitable access to arts education in high-need schools. In 2012, to better understand the state of arts education in Seattle Public Schools, a comprehensive needs assessment was conducted, funded by a grant from the Wallace Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering equity and improvements in learning for young people and increasing access to the arts for all. The study found that 40 percent of K-3 students in Seattle Public Schools received no arts instruction from a qualified arts teacher. It also showed that a student’s race or ethnicity, along with involvement in free or reduced lunches, participation in a special education program, or status as an English language learner, were predictors of a student’s access to an arts education.

Research has shown that students who receive arts education perform better academically and have a greater sense of community. In addition, "the same structures that prevent low-income students of color from receiving an arts education also disadvantage teaching artists of color" (Coons). To address these inequities, a K-12 arts plan was developed and released in spring 2013, creating a roadmap for arts education in Seattle Public Schools. Among other aspects, the plan called for an increase in arts staff, more centralized support for schools, and better coordination of school-community arts partnerships.

To implement the plan, The Creative Advantage program was launched. The goal was to ensure that "all students in all schools should have the opportunity to learn through the arts. The arts are a core component of basic education, and they are uniquely suited to develop 21st century skills such as creative and critical thinking, communication, and perseverance — skills directly linked to student success in school, career, and life" (Seattle K-12 Arts Plan, 8).

In addition to prioritizing increased access to the arts in the schools, The Creative Advantage forged community arts partnerships, provided professional development opportunities, and mandated annual evaluations to monitor progress. The initiative relied on a collaborative approach, led by Seattle Public Schools and the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, with the Seattle Foundation acting as fiscal agent. Local arts organizations, such as the Seattle Art Museum, Arts Corps, Seattle Music Commission, and ArtsEd Washington, were participating partners, along with more than 100 teaching artists and smaller community arts and culture organizations. As a program tagline, administrators selected: "Arts Education Now. Innovative Minds Tomorrow."

Begun in the 2013-2014 school year at 13 schools, five years later the program had expanded to 61 schools. In 2020, the number of schools increased to 81 out of a total of 104 schools. The goal was to implement The Creative Advantage district-wide, ultimately impacting more than 55,000 students.

The Arts Matter

The Creative Advantage has seen significant success since it was launched in 2013. After its first three years, evaluators found that more than 5,000 elementary school students were able to access music classes that would not have been available otherwise, and that the number of elementary schools offering K-5 music and visual arts more than doubled. More recently, the number of elementary and K-8 schools offering both music and visual arts classes increased from 59 percent (2018-2019 school year) to 66 percent two years later. From 2014-2020, the number of visual and performing arts teachers grew from 190 to 268, and there were 145 teaching artists and arts organizations on the community partner roster.

The Pandemic Response

When public schools in Seattle closed in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Competitive Advantage leadership team got busy to make sure that Seattle youth could continue to explore the arts, even using a virtual format. In meetings held early in the pandemic, leaders focused on "understanding what schools might want in terms of partnerships, how online partnerships would work from a legal standpoint, what safety precautions would need to be implemented, and how partners would gain access to technology needed to engage with students through Microsoft Teams, the approved platform within SPS. While these policies and practices were being explored, The Creative Advantage team continued to identify ways they could use the arts to support student emotional well-being while also providing income for community arts partners" (Mehlberg et al, 6).

Two virtual programs grew out of this work. Creative Advantage Online Arts (CAOA) invited teaching artists to create videos in which they could share their art with students. Some presentations were lecture-style tutorials; others offered short creative challenges to pique student interests and inspire creativity. A team of young media artists helped videotape and edit about 125 lessons. The second program, Creative Advantage ALL ACCESS Arts Stream, started in December 2020 and evolved into classes led in real time by master-level teaching artists. The free online classes were targeted to elementary-age students and could be viewed after school and on Saturdays.

Professional Enhancement

Students are not the only ones to profit from The Creative Advantage. As part of its commitment to enhance professional development, The Creative Advantage reached more than 1,000 educators, community partners, and artists during the pandemic through 17 workshops geared to assist with the transition to virtual instruction.

In-person professional-learning activities sponsored by The Creative Advantage were paused during the first two years of the pandemic. The first post-pandemic event for teachers and community arts partners was held in person on April 30, 2022, at the Seattle Art Museum. The event began with a performance from five youth poets, followed by program updates from The Creative Advantage leadership team. Donte Felder, executive director of South End Stories, gave the keynote presentation. 

The Summer Institute, a day of professional learning, also returned in person on August 18, 2022. Held a few weeks before the start of the 2022-2023 school year, the institute attracted teachers, teaching artists, community arts partners, arts administrators, and education leaders who attended panel presentations, workshops, networking opportunities, and student performances. Seattle Youth Poet Laureate Sah Pham opened the program and a group of students from Ground Zero (GZ) Radio provided ongoing media coverage during the event.


Tina LaPadula, "The Creative Advantage: Community Arts Partnership Report Highlights Powerful Arts Education Through Two Challenging School Years," Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, Art Beat Blog, February 16, 2022, website accessed August 16, 2022 (; April Jingco, "The Creative Advantage Welcomes Gabriel-Bello Diaz," Ibid., January 21, 2022, website accessed August 17, 2022 (; April Jingco, "The Creative Advantage Summer Institute Returns Live & In-Person," Ibid., August 1, 2022, website accessed August 17, 2022 (; Carolyn Coons, "Joy is an Act of Resistance," National Endowment for the Arts, American Artscape Magazine, Issue 1, 2021 (; "Seattle K-12 Arts Plan," prepared by Seattle Office of Arts & Culture and Seattle Public Schools, report accessed August 16, 2022 (; Stacy Mehlberg, Ronak Patel, and Duane Baker, "The Creative Advantage Community Arts Partnership Report," Year 7 & 8 evaluation report, report accessed August 16, 2022 (; "The Creative Advantage," Seattle Public Schools website accessed August 17, 2022 (;

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