(by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

High-quality arts programs are known to provide myriad benefits to students who participate in them — but getting kids to sign up isn’t easy. What attracts young students — especially those from low-income families — to specific arts programs?

Peter Rogovin and Denise Montgomery of Next Level Strategic Marketing Group are authors of a new Wallace Foundation-commissioned report on afterschool arts programs and tweens, and here are their findings.

By Peter Rogovin and Denise Montgomery

High-quality afterschool arts programs offer a wide range of benefits to tweens, ages 10 to 13. But we also know that there is a sharp drop off in tween participation in formal afterschool programs, which means many tweens are missing out on the benefits. These challenges can be particularly acute in urban, low-income communities.

What is behind the success of some programs in attracting and retaining elusive tweens, especially those from low-income families? The Wallace Foundation commissioned us to find the answers to these questions. We conducted market research – the kind that businesses typically spend millions on and don’t make public. We interviewed more than 250 tweens, teens, and their families in seven cities nationwide. We interviewed the directors of exemplary programs nationwide. And we spoke with experts in youth development and youth arts instruction.

We asked tweens directly: what do you want in an arts program? And we asked experts: what do you think they need?

Here’s what we discovered: Tweens and practitioners running outstanding programs cited many of the same critical components for what defines excellence in an afterschool arts program.

The insights were released recently in a report called, “Something to Say: Success Principles for Afterschool Arts Programs from Urban Youth and Other Experts.”

Among other things, young people want programs to be led by professional artists. They want hands-on learning with current technology and equipment. They want programs that culminate in high-quality public events with real audiences. And, importantly for those who market programs, they have a different definition of the word “arts” than many adults do, setting the stage for potential communication barriers long before the program even starts. Some of the top programs in the country are guided by these practices and attest to their effectiveness in attracting and retaining tweens.

What was really novel about the research approach is viewing young people who have little money as consumers, and applying a research model that looked at the “ecosystem of demand” – the competing activities, the influence of peers and family, the role of technology, their goals (such as to have fun, make friends, learn skills) and how decisions are made in the home. All of these factor into their choices and commitments. What is important about the research is that it encourages practitioners to adopt a demand mindset, to think like a consumer and not a supplier, while also sharing proven practices from leading researchers and some of the best youth development arts organizations in the country.

“Something to Say” provides a blueprint that we hope will help afterschool organizations engage young people who would otherwise miss out on the benefits of high-quality arts programs. Making those benefits – which according to RAND’s “Gifts of the Muse” can include the opening of new horizons, improved self-discipline, and the development of imaginative capacity – available to more young people is good for everyone.