Building Community – from Art to Z
Four grade one students are huddled together in a circle, heads down, diligently examining their drawings of a big, brick wall. They are trying to decide on the best background for their stop motion animation project – an interpretation of the tale of Humpty Dumpty. The classroom is filled with the hum of young voices having similar debates, while the professional instructor from Final Cut Studios walks around, helping with the discussions.
This is one of many regular happenings at King Edward Elementary, a school situated three blocks north of Whyte Ave, between the railroad tracks and 99th street. Three years ago, teachers enlisted the parent advisory council to launch a new initiative at the school they call Arts Enrichment. This program was developed to bring artistic experiences directly to the students, and to help the school become a stronger part of the community it serves – right in the heart of the biggest arts and culture districts in Edmonton.
There were two issues driving this addition to the school. One was the academic and social benefit to students. Involvement in the arts has been linked to significant improvements in children’s academic performance. A report by Americans for the Arts discovered that children who participate regularly in arts related activities are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, regardless of family education or income level. Arts programming has been found to increase parental involvement, increase children’s feelings of connectedness, and helps children with special needs to feel included.
The second driver was the desire to help the school forge closer links to the community, enhancing the school’s strong focus on citizenship in the curriculum.. Assistant-Principal Eileen Rygus notes, “with dozens of artistic organizations – and artists – established in Strathcona, teachers believed that bringing these influences into the school would help raise awareness of the school, and build relationships that would help make the idea of “community” more real for students.
When school staff brought the idea to the parent council, requesting $2,000 to start up the program, “our first reaction was ‘No – we’ll give you more!’” recalls Berna Ponich, current artist-in-residence and Chair of the Parent Advisory Council at the time. “This idea made a lot of sense. Staff were incredibly committed to this idea, and wanted to make it as good as it could possibly be,” Ponich remembers.
Ponich has a son who attended King Edward Elementary. She is an artist herself, an instructor at the City Art Centre, and owns her own art education business. This year, she has been volunteering her time, working with the teachers on special art projects focusing on technical skills and artistic expression with a direct link to the curriculum, including landscapes, self portraits, and visual story-telling.
“We’ve seen some amazing results coming out of these projects,” Assistant-Principal Rygus remarks. “I saw students’ ability to explain their understanding of social studies concepts increase through participation in curriculum-linked art projects.”
“But it’s more than just academic benefits,” she says. “There have been so many rewards to this. The thrill the students got when they saw all the stop motion animation films at an assembly. The pride they felt when they got a chance to showcase their art projects to families during our Gallery Walk. Shy students stepping out of themselves as they became a character for our drama projects.” Rygus runs through a list of activities. “While this all means a lot of increased planning for teachers, the result is a huge increase in motivation for students, which makes the teachers very happy.”
The teachers who work with the artists are seeing the same benefits as their students. “Staff are so keen to learn,” Ponich notes, “and the all of the teachers are doing an amazing job. The work the kids have been doing in the classroom is amazing. The teachers are really working hard at this, and trying some really daring things.”
This daring pays off. “Sometimes it seems like magic evolves on the children’s pages,” says Paulette Reese, another working artist, and parent who volunteers for the noon-hour art club.
Supporters of the school and the initiative have reached beyond the parent body. Amanda Schutz is a local artist who runs a highly successful graphic design company, Woodward Design, also located in the community. Three years ago she approached the school, wanting to be involved. “Both my senior designer and I live just a couple blocks from King Edward. We both see ourselves raising a family in this neighbourhood, and sending our kids to King Edward School, so we have a vested interest in offering our support. We also both like the idea of using our background in design and advertising to enhance the community we live in.”
The Strathcona Community League is also a partner. As part of celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Old Strathcona, Edmonton artist Carveor Triggs will paint a series of murals designed by the King Edward grade five and six classes. The murals will be placed on the outdoor skating rink by the school and the Community League hall. “The murals celebrate the long-history of our community, from the earliest days of Aboriginal settlement to modern celebrations like the Fringe,” notes board member and parent Jeanie McDonnell. “They are going to be very colorful and lively, just like the children in our community.”
Ponich still feels a strong tie to the school, even though her son graduated two years ago. “It’s a vital part of our community,” she states. “My son had such a great experience here. It was so important for me that this school was a place where he became part of a bigger ‘family.’”
The fact that this family is reaching out to the community to bring the benefit of arts participation directly into the school environment, makes it a pretty great place to call home.
by Karen Korchinski