Juneau's elementary students can now get an early start in art education.
The Juneau School District recently adopted a new art curriculum for elementary students based on a model that has proved to be successful in the Fairbanks School District for more than two decades. Two part-time art specialists have been hired to teach students and teachers throughout the district.
"We're trying to make our lessons really meaningful in a lot of ways so teachers can see how you can teach through the arts," said Nancy Lehnhart, one of the new art specialists. "You can teach a lot of things through the arts, and it's really effective and kids get really engaged in it."
The art specialists spend time in each of the elementary schools - including the charter and Montessori schools - demonstrating art kits they've developed. Teachers can use them in the future to present the district's curriculum.
"Teachers check out a kit every week or every other week, so that art is being taught more often, and in a lot of ways, more accessibly," said Heather K. Ridgway, the other newly hired art specialist.
The program was made possible in part by Arts for Kids and a grant from the Larson Family Foundation.
Lehnhart and Ridgway spent the beginning of the week at Auke Bay Elementary School teaching first, third and fifth-graders lessons blended with health aspects to complement the district's curriculum. The program has been well received by teachers, Lehnhart said.
"It's a tremendous benefit," said JoAnn Jones, a fifth-grade teacher at Auke Bay. "We get to watch how the lesson is presented so that in the future we will be able to replicate that. It's wonderful."
"The purpose of our program is as much to connect with the teachers and get the teachers to do more art in their regular classroom," Ridgway said.
Lehnhart spent Wednesday morning demonstrating a kit that focuses on families by replicating a style of story quilts made popular by artist Faith Ringgold of New York City. The students drew pictures of their families on a square sheet of paper before pasting it to a background that is then outlined by smaller squares of fabric to create the appearance of a quilt.
"We're talking about how art can tell a story," Lehnhart said. "That's one of the things that people do through art, is tell a story."
Eight-year-old Connor Blackwell said he enjoyed the project.
"You get to make whatever you want mostly," he said. "I'm not really good at writing, so lucky for me."
Lehnhart said art is a good way to get students more involved with other subjects.
"Research says that scores go up in math and reading and all the subject areas when arts are infused in the curriculum," she said.
Allison Smith, who hosted Lehnhart Wednesday morning, said using these art kits provides more ways to reach her students.
"It really gives them a chance to communicate their ideas with a picture and it takes some of the pressure off them for writing," she said. "The finished project that they produce really looks like something they are proud to share."
Jones said the revival of an elementary art program gives more opportunities for students to learn in different ways.
Smith said she has been impressed with the students' stories that have emerged from the art project. She is also impressed with the art specialists.
"I just think it's wonderful that as teachers we get some extra support and some real artists to come in and inspire the kids," Smith said.
Lehnhart said she hopes the district will build on the program in the future.
"There's a lot of commitment from the district right now to see the arts increased," she said. "I think they see it as a really important way to address some of the concerns they have about engaging kids and keeping kids in school."