An art specialist for every elementary school?
February 29, 2008
"I’m not an activist kind of person," said Anne Marie Buckland, art specialist at McPolin Elementary School. "I just want to teach art and have these programs be in our schools."
Funded by a series of grants and private donations, Buckland began teaching at McPolin this year. And while the program initially met resistance from teachers and administrators, her persistence and professionalism throughout the school year has earned her respect and admiration among her peers.
McPolin Principal Bob Edmiston said at the start of the school year there wasn’t a clear plan in place, and he was very hesitant about having a separate art program because he didn’t want to throw away valuable instruction time. "I really didn’t buy into this at first, but she has done an exceptional job," he said.
Buckland, with the help of many community volunteers, has pioneered something no other elementary school in Park City School District has: a break-out art class (similar to a physical education or library specialist class) where students are learning about art in the foreground instead of in the background.
Art education is different at Parley’s Park, Jeremy Ranch and Trailside elementary schools because it sits in the background of core curriculum subjects like math, science, literature, etc. It is divided into two parts: classroom integration (where teachers include an art lesson within another subjects) and Masterpieces in the Arts (a volunteer program run by parents, which introduces students to artists).
Helping to coordinate classroom integration is district art specialist JoAnn Memmott. Memmott was hired as a half-time employee by the Park City Education Foundation last year to supplement the existing Masterpieces in the Arts program by teaching teachers how to teach the Utah art core curriculum.
Recommended Stories For You
Buckland and Memmott represent two different approaches to teaching art at the elementary-school level.
An art specialist in every elementary school
Buckland would like to see every elementary school have a trained, qualified art specialist for a break-out period of art at least once a week, which is what her schedule is like at McPolin. "We have such an arty, affluent community, and we are lagging in our art education," she said. "Park City should be a leader; that’s the kind of community we are."
While the school has partial funding for her to continue teaching art at McPolin next year, with the Men of McPolin and PTO helping to fundraise, Buckland said she hopes to receive her Utah teacher’s certificate and become a district employee instead.
"I would like to be paid more [the grant equates to about $20,000 a year], and I would like to have more job security, but most importantly, I would like to see elementary art specialists be in our district’s budget," she said.
Buckland has spoken during public-comment periods at Park City’s school-board meetings several times trying to advocate that her position be expanded into the rest of the elementary schools, but the board has yet to discuss this as an option.
The board’s priorities
Superintendent Ray Timothy said he is waiting to hear from Memmott, who will speak in an upcoming school-board meeting, for an update on where the district stands with art instruction. He said there may be time to discuss Buckland’s idea during that time.
"It would be nice to be able to replicate what she’s been doing in every school," he said. "The question is how much of a budget do we have, and what are our priorities." He explained that the board is in the process of establishing priorities, but has yet to decide where Buckland’s approach to elementary art education fits into a long list of needs and requests.
School Board President Kim Carson said that, while the board thinks it is a "worthwhile endeavor," they haven’t seen an interest in an art specialist from the other elementary schools at this time.
One tentative option the board is considering, Carson said, is to allocate money to each elementary school, which they could put toward projects of their choice. "We want to have consistent offerings at our schools, but we also have to understand that each school may have different needs," she said. Carson used the emphasis on technology at Trailside and the emphasis on art at McPolin as an example of this.
One board member who admits he has a "strong bias for visual arts at all levels of education" is David Chaplin, a former art teacher in the Park City School District.
Chaplin’s love for the arts and regard for its importance in children’s education runs deep, but so does his understanding of the heavy load placed on Park City’s elementary schools. "We are asking our elementary programs to do so many things," he said. "In some cases, we have to teach a great number of our students to learn English. I don’t blame them a bit. It is very overwhelming with all those expectations."
He added that the board’s funding priorities are based on requests from the schools themselves. "I think if we had four elementary principals say they need an art teacher, perhaps we would find funding, but I don’t know," he said.
Curriculum Director Lori Gardner said that Park City’s current elementary art programs are above and beyond the state’s norm. "Many districts faced with the pressures of No Child Left Behind have had to get rid of the art core," she said. "Utah is focused on enhancing subject areas with art."
This means that a teacher is responsible for incorporating art into the science lesson or math lesson or English lesson. But with all these overwhelming academic expectations already, why should a teacher take on that responsibility as well?
Gardner said that, if teachers do choose not to incorporate art in their lessons, "it’s because a lot of times teachers view it as just one more thing they have to do. If they could see it as a means of really enhancing the knowledge of other areas, then they might embrace that."
Buckland’s approach to art education differs in that it retains art as the focal point and at the same time reinforcing students’ knowledge of other subjects.
Part of the reason Edmiston believes Buckland’s efforts are so well received is her ability to coordinate what other teachers are doing in the classroom with the activities going on in her classroom.
"We’re really collaborating on the subject matter," Buckland said. "We’re doing an African art unit that is coinciding with the fifth-grade early American curriculum. It just makes subjects so much more rich."
The vocabulary students are learning in Buckland’s class is coming up in other classrooms as well. "Teachers are telling me that they are using words like scale, contour, analogs," she said.
But it’s not just about connecting to the academic aspects of other subjects. Buckland begins each new unit with the history of the art they are going to be studying, and she always includes some current artists as well. "It’s important for them to see it’s still happening today, along with understanding the masters," she said.
Buckland’s approach is unique to elementary art, she says. "It’s much more integrated and much more enlivening. Fun, but strict. We are serious. There is a vibe that this is academic time."
Edmiston said he appreciates this kind of strong instruction. "She talks with kindergarteners and first graders like they are going to be artists," he said.
Buckland explained that her philosophy is "if you raise the bar, they’ll be right there with you."
Another very powerful argument for Edmiston is that English Language Learner students can be on the same page as everyone else. "When it comes down to art and to color, they are able to do the work at a high or higher level because art is universal," he said.
Buckland also recognizes that advantage. "I’m realizing that our Hispanics can have a real hour of absolute success," she said. "They don’t have to be separated out to talk to a specialist."
Art helps build their confidence, she continued. "They’re in an environment where they feel safe to take risks."
While Edmiston can’t say whether this type of situation would work for every elementary school, he said, "Any school would want to keep what we have going on. We are going to support Anne Marie and her efforts to expand this program, and a little bit selfishly because we want to keep her," he said. "If we could get four of Anne Marie, then I think the district should have it in every school."
Editor’s Note: This story will continue in the Wednesday, March 5, edition of the Park Record. It will include the other elementary school principals’ thoughts on art in elementary schools; JoAnn Memmot’s plans for the program; a bill in the Utah Legislature that would allocate money for art specialists; and the importance of exposing children to arts at a young age.