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Students at Juneau Community Charter School sat in a semicircle Thursday as art specialist Dianne Anderson showed them a reproduction of Van Gogh's "Starry Night."
The 20 or so fourth-, fifth-and sixth-graders had just put away their violins after a lesson from Guo-Hua Xia, who is contracted to teach the instrument at the 57-student school. A piano sits nearby, next to a gurgling aquarium.
The hallways in the warren-like school downtown are literally papered with children's art, but the collection may not be permanent. The arts-oriented public school for children from kindergarten to grade six may close at the end of the school year if the school district cuts its budget, parents say.
The students in Anderson's class already have used oil pastels to color the background of their own versions of "Starry Night." Now she wants them to create the swirling cypress trees in the foreground by tearing sheets of dark-colored paper. The torn edges will suit the subject more than the hard lines of a scissor cut.
"When you look at the use of paint in his vegetation, the edges are real soft," Anderson told the students. "You can almost see the water coursing up the veins of the cypress trees."
Van Gogh's paint strokes convey the energy of the universe, she said, and reminded the children of the strong winds and swirling dirt they saw outside the school windows recently.
Anderson tries to integrate her art lessons into whatever is happening in the children's lives, even if it's just a few cold, clear, starry nights during the recent winter break. After they came back from break, she talked with them about the landing of a probe on Mars and the nature of the northern lights.
"We kind of did this brainstorming of everything they saw" during the break, Anderson said in an interview. "Then I turned them loose with oil pastels after I talked about Van Gogh's 'Starry Night.' "
In the school's arts-integrated curriculum, "children are learning through the arts, but they don't only have an art class," said teacher Sheila Keller. "We try to look for ways to teach subject matter through the arts."
Parent John Grummett said he was reluctant to enroll his third-grade son Jack in the charter school, but now Jack is studying math and reading at a fourth-grade level.
"He's continually being challenged at his pace, which is a little higher than the average guy," Grummett said. "His self-esteem has really improved since he's been there."
John Clark has enrolled two daughters, Lindsay and Auri, in the school for several years. Clark was attracted by the arts-based curriculum, he said. He also liked the parental involvement in the school.
The school requires parents to volunteer at least five hours a month per child. In addition, some parents have particular tasks such as putting out a newsletter or organizing the volunteer janitorial work, said Ernie Mueller, a grandparent on the school's governing Academic Policy Committee.
"I enjoy all the families," Clark said. "It's just nice to know the families and have the community feeling about the school."
Children, who call their teachers by their first names, said they liked the informal and friendly atmosphere and liked spending more time with their parents during the day.
"In this school it's a little looser," said fourth-grader Sierra Tagaban. "In other schools you can't eat lunch on the floor. In other schools you can't drink tea."
Sierra also liked the regular opportunities for children of all the grades to play together. And, she said, "You can take off your shoes in school."
"And wear slippers," added fourth-grader Torey Sinnheber, who in fact was shod in a green furry animal with white eyes and black nostrils.
"You feel comfortable being different from other people," Tagaban added.
Tom Faverty, who teaches a combined class of second- and third-graders at the charter school, said it's important to have alternative schools.
"I don't like big schools because they're crazy," second-grader Julian Minne said.
Second-grader Naomi Kirtz-Moritz said her previous public school didn't work out for her.
"It was too rough," she said. "They have to be too strict because a lot of the kids won't go with the rules."
"We do a lot of work on social skills here," Faverty said. "If kids don't function socially, it doesn't matter how smart they are."
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.