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Budget cuts jeopardize Young Playwrights programs in schools

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Sameer Rao

Philadelphia Young Playwrights is widely championed by education advocates, teachers, principals, and school administrators alike for providing high-quality arts literacy options to many area schools without formal theatre programs. But District austerity measures have thrown the future of its Philadelphia programs into limbo.

With the School District facing a $304 million shortfall, individual school budgets have withered, decimating District funding for arts and music education. As the rescue package for Philadelphia schools continues to remain unresolved, principals don’t know if they will be able to maintain these partner programs when schools open in the fall.

“The situation we face is principals’ lack of capacity, given the slashing of their discretionary budgets, to find money that might have been previously available in their budgets to fund a program like Young Playwrights,” says Glen Knapp, Young Playwrights’ executive producing director.

The organization’s core program, which partners K-12 teachers with local theatre professionals to lead over 5,000 students in playwriting workshops, is provided in partnership with nearly 30 individual schools throughout the District and surrounding counties.

As part of that model, which has allowed Young Playwrights to sustain relationships with schools through previous District financial crises, the program is typically paid in part with money coming from principals’ discretionary funds. The majority of those funds have since been eliminated from principals’ balance sheets after the School Reform Commission approved a bare-bones "doomsday" budget in May.

There are nearly 2,800 cultural organization programs in schools throughout Philadelphia and its surrounding areas, according to a 2011 report from the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the anchor organization for the city’s arts and culture sector. School groups made over 34,000 visits to theaters, museums, historical sites, and other cultural spots.

Although Young Playwrights’ large presence in District schools makes its programming uniquely vulnerable to the District’s budget, arts organizations who don’t receive District funding are still hindered by diminished municipal resources.

According Anne Holmes, director of Wilma Theater’s acclaimed education programs, rigorous guidelines for outside vendors can complicate program sustainability.

“It’s brutal for a small nonprofit company like ours to go through the process of becoming a [District] vendor. We just don’t have the staff for it,”

Their Wilmagination theatre residencies, which allow nearly 250 students from the School District to meet learning objectives through theatre education in conjunction with an ongoing Wilma production, are privately funded in part to avoid these rigors as well as the financial crises.

Young Playwrights is similarly turning to outside funding sources to fill these gaps. But even with those sources, said Holmes, “we are limited in what we can offer and how many classes we can work with.”

Young Playwrights and the Wilma, who worked together with 1812 Productions and a group of students from South Philadelphia High School to produce We Write South Philly High! in 2011, are also affected by District staff upheaval.

Two schools with Young Playwrights programming this past year – Walter G. Smith Elementary and Communications Technology High — were among 24 schools closed this year. Teachers from those schools are uncertain as to where they’ll end up or if they can bring Young Playwrights programming to their new schools.

The Wilma faced similar issues with English teachers who were among the more than 676 teachers and 3,800 District workers laid off earlier this year.

“When you’re losing teachers and you never know who you’re going to have the next year, it’s really difficult to build continuity in a program,” Holmes said.

That continuity is crucial to sustaining and measuring outcomes, and is threatened by the loss or reduced capacity of principals and teachers at each school. Young Playwrights and principals at partner schools will not know exactly what this capacity looks like until later this month, when school budgets are finalized.

For some, this bleak picture might seem confusing when held up against these organizations’ numerous public successes. Young Playwrights’ most famous alum, Quiara Alegría Hudes, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama last year. Their Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts production, “The Lost Hour,” earned rave reviews and admiration for the multi-generational and even-handed collaboration between theatre professionals, university actors, and high school student playwright/actors.

The Wilma continues to stage cutting-edge works to wide acclaim. But as difficult as those two narratives are to reconcile, one cannot exist without the other.

“All of the riches from [these successes] stem from the opportunities that every student gets in the classroom program," said Knapp. "Those public opportunities only stem from as many students in the region as possible being able to stage their plays in classrooms.”

Even through these times of crisis, Knapp expresses immense gratitude for District leadership and principals who have supported Young Playwrights. Among them is School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos, who spoke at the organization’s 25th anniversary celebration in June and attested to its importance as “a pedagogical strategy”.

Meanwhile, Young Playwrights teachers continue to advocate for the program’s transformative power. Joshua Block, a humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy who has worked with Young Playwrights for almost five years, wrote in a guest post on Edutopia that collaborations between students and experts often lead to profound experiences for students and teachers alike.

“These programs are, in no way, extras or fluff," said Block. "Experiences with the arts allow students to explore their identities and their worlds in deep, meaningful, and insightful ways as they develop advanced academic skills.”

Still, without a strong core program in place, the possibility for young artists to have exposure and transformative experiences on a larger stage may disappear.

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