Arts for Kids, a group that’s been advocating for high-quality art opportunities and education for Juneau’s kids over the past seven years, has likely passed under the radar for many, but their accomplishments have had a substantial impact on Juneau schools. Anyone with children in the elementary school system has been directly affected by their efforts, most notably through the Juneau Elementary Art Program, which they helped establish in 2005. They’ve also set up visual art scholarships for graduating seniors, given out grant money for art projects, advocated for the arts when funding cuts loom and hosted the popular Community Art Celebration since 2004.
Now, faced with dwindling numbers and a bit of fatigue, long-standing board members are looking for some new recruits — or even an entirely new team. Board president Shelagh Sands says without some fresh energy, the group will have to disband at the end of the year. If it does, the community stands to lose not only the arts celebration and senior scholarships, but a powerful collective voice for the arts in our schools.
“Everyone wanted to close down last year, but I convinced everybody to stay one more year to try to see if we could get the board moved over to a new group,” Sands said. “We all know that if you don’t have an advocacy group for art in this particular district, it will really have an effect.”
In the past the group has motivated parents and other community members in letter-writing campaigns, and stressed the importance of art in the schools in presentations to the school board, among other measures. A collective, organized voice speaking out in support of the arts is often much more readily heard than a smattering of individuals, Sands said.
“It’s very hard with a bureaucracy to say, ‘My opinion is worthwhile,’” she said. “It’s really important (for the school) to listen to the parents. But it’s also really hard to get that message from the parent to the school — that’s why an advocacy group helps.”
Sands is one of three current board members, along with Susan Oshida and Dayna Focht. Last year’s board included Sherri MacDonald, Linda Frame, Suzanne Malter, Colleen Jones and Beth Handley.
Many of the board members had been involved since the nonprofit was founded — too long, according to Sands, also an original member.
“A board really doesn’t do well unless it has continuing new members. You really shouldn’t have a board even as old as us.”
Sands and Oshida said they hope that parents of young children may be interested in taking on the role, or community members without kids who believe in the importance of the arts.
“You don’t even have to have kids in the schools. But you have to have a passion for art,” Sands said.
Elementary art program
The Art for Kids board was formed in 2004 in response to what many saw as a lack of consistent and equitable arts education in the elementary schools. At that time some schools and specific classrooms had art programs, some did not. Kids received or missed out on high-quality art education depending on their school, teacher, or parents’ level of interest. The inequity prompted a small group of parents with similar goals to get together to see if they could create an elementary program that served all the kids regardless of their school or circumstance.
“It was just a simultaneous thing — we said everybody should have the same (art opportunities),” Sands said. “That’s when we started to form the board, and we had the celebration to try to get the word out to the people that we wanted art in our elementary schools.”
Nancy Lehnhart, a long-time local teacher, heard about a program in Fairbanks that involved art teachers going to all the schools one-by-one with prepared art “kits” that contained materials for a complete art lesson, designed to be tied into the current curriculum. Once the kits were created, they were stored in a central library where teachers could check them out as many times as they wanted. Teachers were also given hands-on training for the kits and for bringing art into their classrooms. Lehnhart took a trip to see the itinerant art specialist program in action and saw that it was flourishing. When she got back with her report, Art for Kids set about gathering funds to make it happen in Juneau.
After receiving $60,000 from the Laursen Foundation, they approached the school board with money in hand. Their idea was accepted, and two part-time specialists were hired in 2005.
“A lot of people were upset that we weren’t trying to get an elementary art teacher at each school, but the district just didn’t have the money. So this was the best model to follow,” Sands said.
The board was given a second grant of $40,000 before the district took over financing of the program, expanding it to three full-time specialists. In 2009 the team was cut back to two, Lehnhart and Mimi Walker.
Oshida said the program is very cost effective, reaching 1,928 kids through those two specialists, as well as providing staff development for about 100 teachers.
The number of art lessons available to teachers has multiplied over the years to 158, with more being added every year. Figures from this year show that 72 teachers in the elementary schools have used the kits since September — that’s 80 percent of all the elementary teachers — and that the total number of kits checked out so far in this year is 1,091.
Harborview principal Dave Stoltenburg, said he feels the art program successfully “hits a different modality of learning,” capturing the attention of kids who might otherwise not be engaged.
“I think there’s a lot of kids — more than we probably know — a silent group out there that that’s how they learn and what keeps them coming back to school,” he said.
Stoltenburg said he’s also appreciative of the staff development opportunities the specialists offer to Harborview teachers.
“The art specialists, including Heather (Ridgway) last year, have done an excellent job of working with the kids and working with our teachers.”
Stoltenburg also said he’s heard a lot of positive feedback from parents and others about the abundance and quality of art displayed in the school.
“There’s a lot of people — families and community members — who have commented and spoken very highly of the kids artwork that is displayed,” he said. “I think it gets a really good review by the community. This school is definitely a standout in that area.”
Currently, the school board is considering cutting one of the two remaining art specialist positions in the Elementary Art Program. One specialist would be hard-pressed to serve all the kids and teachers at seven schools, Oshida said.
“We feel it really can’t work with one person, it works really well with two,” she said.
Without the board in place to streamline disparate efforts in getting the word out about the potential cut, individuals are going to have to make sure their voices get heard, Sands said.
“People need to let the school board know that they value the elementary art program,” she said.
In spite of disappointment about the possible cut, Sands said the board has always tried to take a positive approach, and that they’ve had great support from the school board for their efforts.
“We’ve always tried to be very positive. We’ve always just tried to encourage. And it’s worked. Because they want the same thing, the school district wants the best for the children. But its very helpful when then have parents helping.”
No art celebration this year, but scholarships are on
In order to concentrate on raising interest in a new board, the group has decided to cancel this year’s Community Art Celebration, an annual event that’s been held since 2004, attracting crowds of more than 500 kids and adults. First held to generate interest in the elementary art program, the event was continued to bring local artists together with kids. More than 20 local artists and 30 high school volunteers participated every year to provide a wide range of activity for kids of all ages. Though it’s not being held this year, the event would be easy to recharge next year if a new group comes in, Sands said.
“We have it all set up. We have it written down, exactly what to do. We have lists of artist that have volunteered every year. So it would be very easy for someone to step right in.”
The group will give out senior art scholarships this year, however, and hopes to continue that program even if the board disbands.
“You just cant believe how incredible those seniors are. And its a great boost for them, because we’re the only visual arts scholarship given in town,” Sands said.
The scholarships are paid for through the sales of SmART chocolate bars, made by Theobroma Chocolate Co. in Sitka, sold at A&P and the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council. Last year, sales from the bars enabled Arts for Kids to give out $3,800 to Juneau Douglas and Thunder Mountain graduating seniors; this year they have $2,500 for three scholarships, and are currently accepting applications.
The group also gives out money for specific art projects. This year they gave $1,000 to each middle school; Floyd Dryden Middle School students used the money to create silk scarves for their choir and Dzantik’i Heeni used theirs to create a mural in their covered playground. The money for the projects came from two donations, and was approved only after each school had presented the board with a detailed proposal as to how it would be used.
Though the Arts for Kids board members are hoping to find a new group to continue the senior scholarships and other programs, Malter said a new group could make changes to the mission statement or other aspects of the board.
“If there was a group of three or four friends who wanted to totally take over — they don’t even have to live with the old guard,” Malter said.
If no one comes forward to take over, the board will likely take their remaining funds and create a fourth senior art scholarship this year. They plan to wrap things up in May.
Overall, Sands and Oshida said the board has always tried to find common ground, and work toward positive change in the community.
“We’ve had so much support from school board members, teachers, principals — we want to thank them for all the support we’ve had to keep this going. A lot of people believe in it.”
Those interested in finding out more about the Arts for Kids board should contact Sands at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There will be a school budget committee meeting tonight from 6-8 p.m. at the Thunder Mountain HIgh School Commons. Public comment is welcome.