What's So Special About Connecticut's Hartford Performs and Their Summer Literacy Program?

Connecticut's Hartford Performs, a nonprofit arts education organization, announced it received a $40,000 grant from the Travelers Foundation to support its Summer Arts Literary Program. This award is much-needed good news for Hartford public schools and may suggest the overall tide is turning back toward greater arts funding, thanks to bold and collaborative programs like the one employed by Hartford Performs.

Of course, nonprofit arts administrators don't need to be reminded that funding for things like literacy programs and the musical arts have a long way to go before they reach pre-Recession levels. It's a topic we've covered in great detail here at IP, and in the process, we've seen philanthropic groups roll out new and innovative models to help plug the funding gaps.

And then there's Hartford Performs. Founded in 2009, the organization isn't a standalone private organization nor is it fully funded within the city's public school system. Rather, it's somewhere in the middle. It's a separate organization that is nonetheless fully integrated into the Hartford Public School district's five-week summer school program serving students in 18 schools.

Furthermore, the composition of Hartford Performs is worth mentioning. The organization consists of teachers, students, artists, and members of the Hartford community. In addition to supporting summer literary programs, the group also focuses on dance, music, theatre, and the visual arts. This begets the question: why did Travelers cut Hartford Performs a check for the summer literary program, rather than these other disciplines?

A spokeswoman from Travelers, Erin Haberman, was somewhat (and diplomatically) vague on this point, noting, "The program enriches student learning and provides Hartford students with high-quality arts experiences." But it's safe to say a few additional factors are at play here. First, we can assume the public schools were somewhat short on summer literary programs and/or funding. And two, providing kids with educational activities during the summer months is a no-brainer for a whole host of reasons, most notably the fact that students need to be kept intellectually engaged during this period of inactivity.

Lastly, the literary program itself seems particularly interesting, if not downright innovative. Based on a curriculum modeled after one developed at Brown University and Gamm Theatre's Performance Cycle, the program places a certified teacher and teaching artist side-by-side, where they collaboratively teach the English Language Arts component to "bring text alive in the classroom." And there's more: "Through self-assessments, teamwork, and developing acting skills, students gain comfort in reading and are able to build a strong sense of community, while demonstrating an understanding of a classical text. The program ends with student performances that are inspired by the text."

This is a program built on teamwork, collaborative learning of the classics, and a performance component, integrated in a community-oriented context. This isn't your grandfather's summer literary program.