Families & the Community

Volunteer Group Restores Art Lessons in Schools

By Kathryn Baron — April 26, 2016 7 min read
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Until recently, 11-year-old Sinai Medina dreamed of playing pro basketball. Now, he also imagines becoming an artist.

What makes his shift so surprising is that until last year, the dark-haired, serious 5th grader never did art. He never finger-painted, colored in a coloring book, or drew chalk pictures on the sidewalk. He had no arts and crafts at school—no Play-Doh, painting at an easel, or making collages with dried macaroni and glitter.

“Before, we didn’t have art and we weren’t creative. Now I want to come to school,” said Sinai, a 5th grader at Taft Community School here in this community, located about halfway between San Francisco and San Jose.

When Robyn Miller became principal three years ago, Taft didn’t have an art program. Her school had been among the thousands of schools serving predominantly low-income African-American and Hispanic populations that were compelled to eliminate the arts as far back as 1982 and saw steady declines ever since because of budget woes, according to a 2011 report from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Michele Haussler, a parent and Art in Action volunteer, teaches 5th graders at Taft Community School in Redwood City, Calif., about the quilts created to pass on signals to fleeing slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad.

Miller wanted to restore art classes, but, even with the end of the Great Recession, the school didn’t have the money to hire a credentialed art teacher. She found an affordable alternative in Art in Action, a nonprofit organization based in neighboring Menlo Park.

For each class that uses the program, schools pay a $200 licensing fee, about $10 per student per year. For that price, they get access to a robust online curriculum that includes 12 lessons each for kindergarten through 8th grade. For a few hundred dollars more, schools can buy kits with all the materials they’ll need. Art in Action subsidizes the poorest schools.

Fueled by Volunteers

The organization can keep costs down because it has built a network of thousands of parent volunteers to teach art in their children’s schools.

“The reality is the teachers don’t have the time to teach art in their classrooms, nor do they have the materials,” said Miller. “With this program, we’re getting volunteers who have been trained [and have] the passion and excitement to bring to the kids each week.”

Several recent studies have found that art builds a critical cognitive bridge between acquiring knowledge in school and putting it to use in the real world.

“One of the foremost components of 21st-century skills is creativity,” said Miller. “It could be art, it could be technology, it could be writing. We’re giving [students] an opportunity to explore creatively and have their imaginations soar and be innovative, maybe even in solving problems.”

She says Art in Action supports these connections because its lessons are aligned with the Common Core State Standards in math, reading, and writing, and can be tailored to fit the curriculum in all other subjects, such as history and geography.

Quilting With Math

“What is four times four?” parent volunteer Michele Haussler asked Sinai’s class. “Sixteen,” the students answered in unison.

She held up a small square of pink construction paper and demonstrated how to fold it into four and then into 16 equal squares. As the students followed along on their paper squares, Haussler told them about the African-American artist Faith Ringgold, now 85, who is best known for her quilts depicting stories of race and racism. Ringgold’s work was influenced by quilts made by slaves in the South that had coded symbols sewn into them.

The students were rapt as Haussler described how slaves would hang the quilts on fences as if they were laundry drying, but they were actually signposts that guided runaway slaves to freedom in the North.

Haussler has been a volunteer art teacher since her daughter was in kindergarten at a different school. Parents there had raised money for an art program, but had no one to teach it. Nine years later, her daughter is in high school and Haussler is still volunteering, teaching three classes a day at Taft, and studying to become a fully credentialed art teacher.

“It’s been a work of love from the very beginning,” said Haussler, getting choked up as she spoke. “As a small child, [art] is what got me through school. It’s what got me through grammar school; it’s what got me through high school.” Haussler studied art in college, but didn’t major in it.

Haussler and all of the volunteers attended Art in Action’s training, which is included in the licensing fees. (Three-hour workshops are offered for each grade.) Every year, about 800 parents and some teachers attend workshops in person at the California office; another 200 participate via webinar.

On one Saturday morning, 20 kindergarten moms and a dad wearing red Art in Action aprons sat at four long narrow tables for a training class at the Menlo Park office. Each place was set with a colorful array of art supplies, including a paper-plate palette with dollops of red, blue, yellow, green, and white paint; a tray of brushes; a pair of scissors; a small sponge; a tray of watercolors; a container of soft pastel sticks; and lots of paper.

“This is the only way they’re getting art in the curriculum,” said Ruthie Lopez, whose daughter is in 1st grade at River Glen Elementary School in San Jose.

Lopez is a substitute teacher. She started volunteering with Art in Action after trying to do an arts activity when she was subbing one day. “I opened the cupboard and there were some paints and markers and that was it. It made me sad,” she said.

When teacher Judy Sleeth founded Art in Action in her child’s district in 1982, arts education had been decimated in California by Proposition 13. The 1978 state ballot measure imposed a property-tax cap, and public schools lost billions in funding almost overnight.

Today, Art in Action reaches about 50,000 students in more than 200 schools. Most are in California, but in recent years, the program has expanded to 18 other states, from Alaska to Florida. Over the next three to five years, the group plans to nearly double the number of students it serves to meet the demand for the program from schools that still don’t have art teachers and those that have winnowed the curriculum to focus on math, reading, and writing in order to boost test scores.

Not a Replacement

But some art education advocates are ambivalent about organizations like Art in Action.

“We would never want to see an outside arts or culture organization replace an arts teacher,” said Doug Israel, the director of research and policy at the Center for Arts Education, which pushes for professional art teachers in every New York City public school. He applauded principals like Miller for seeking affordable and creative arts education for their students, but said outside programs are inadequate substitutes for having a licensed art teacher on staff. Art teachers provide daily instruction and other important enrichment programming, explained Israel. They help with school plays, do fundraising, and coordinate outreach to community arts groups for such activities as museum field trips and special lessons with professional artists.

Ultimately, however, Israel said Art in Action and similar programs are “a benefit for students and better than no arts.”

Teachers are keenly aware of those benefits. At Taft, 5th grade teacher Jessica Kwa said she’s already planning to use the Faith Ringgold lesson when her class starts working on fractions.

“It’s definitely easier for them to have something to refer back to,” said Kwa.

Art also has something of a transcendent effect on her students, some more than others, she said. This year, it’s Sinai. Last year, it was a boy named Joel. Kwa said Joel was a good kid who made bad choices—missing homework, talking when he should be working, and disrupting class. Art in Action revealed a different Joel, one who excelled in art, became focused, asked questions, and cared about his work.

“I was surprised because I hadn’t seen him [be] so meticulous with any work before,” said Kwa. “I immediately jumped on that opportunity to praise him, recognizing his strengths.”

When he got stuck on concepts in math and started to struggle, she would refer to art class to remind him of his capabilities. Over time, Joel made those connections instinctively. He became more focused in class, turned in his homework on time, and his grades improved.

Kwa said experiences like these increase students’ self-esteem and confidence, especially for kids who struggle in school. They think they’re bad at math until she reminds them “you’ve been doing math the whole time [in art class], we just didn’t call it that, and you were successful at it.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2016 edition of Education Week as Parent Volunteers Help to Restore Art Lessons in Strapped Schools

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