Museum helping more at-risk students learn through art

[Note: This was written for The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation.]

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — More underserved children in Asheville, Buncombe County and three rural counties in Western North Carolina will have access to arts education and activities through a $25,000 grant to the Asheville Art Museum to build partnerships with local schools and parks-and-recreation centers.

The funds, from The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation in Durham, will help the Museum provide nearly 10,000 hours of visual-arts programming to 950 students in kindergarten through fifth grade in McDowell, Henderson and Madison counties.

During the course of a year, the Museum will offer to 1,200 pre-school children and their caregivers in Asheville and Buncombe County a weekly program it has piloted on a monthly basis since 2012.

“The arts are an essential component in developing critical thinking skills that lead to success, yet over the past 20 years there has been a steady decline in funding for the arts,” says Pamela L. Myers, the Museum’s executive director. “We partner with schools throughout the region to ensure that the diverse population of students have full access to art and education, and to programs that allow for students with different learning styles to excel in the arts and in their academic studies.”

Mimi O’Brien, executive director of the Biddle Foundation, says the Museum’s expansion of its programs will provide new opportunities for underserved students and preschoolers to thrive.

“The arts are a powerful, inspiring tool that helps children and adults alike learn, grow and connect with the people and places in their lives,” she says.

The Foundation made the grant as part of the celebration of its 60th anniversary.

Arts and education

Established by artists in 1948, the Asheville Art Museum is the only accredited visual arts institution serving all 24 counties in Western North Carolina, a region of over 1.2 million residents and some of the most underserved and low-wealth school districts in the state.

For school districts in the region, particularly in the face of increasingly tight budgets for education, access to educational innovation and auxiliary services such as arts education is limited.

“They are places in which teachers and school administrators struggle to provide enrichment to the diversity of their students,” Myers says.

To help fill that gap, the Museum serves as the arts education partner of schools.

‘Literacy Through Art’

In 1994, the Museum launched its Literacy Through Art program, a partnership with school districts to boost student literacy by integrating the arts with learning. Yet with the steady decline in public support for enrichment programs beyond the traditional curriculum of reading, writing and math, the Museum has been providing a growing share of resources for the program.

With the involvement of principals and classroom teachers, the Museum provides nine lessons of 60 minutes each in participating schools. Leading the classroom lessons, which meet state goals and objectives in language arts and visual arts, are artist-educators.

The 10th and final lesson includes a visit to the Museum — with some schools providing transportation — for a gallery tour and hands-on studio activity.

And by collaborating with the artist-educators, participating classroom teachers can build their skills to incorporate art into their classroom activities.

An evaluation of the program by a researcher at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching suggested that students benefit academically from the program because it addresses multiple learning styles to build visual and language art skills.

In McDowell, Henderson and Madison counties, which will get the program as a result of the Biddle Foundation grant, the poverty rate is above 17.2 percent. And the percentage of students who get lunch that is free or at a reduced price totals over 63 percent in Madison and McDowell counties, and 54 percent in Henderson County.

Without the Museum program, and in the wake of budget cuts and limited resources for many school districts, visual arts would not be part of the curriculum for most students in those counties. Madison County, which was part of the program when it was launched in 1994, has not participated since 2004 because of budget cuts.

‘Tot Time’

Four years ago, the Museum began piloting its Tot Time program, which features guided art activities for pre-school children and their caregivers. Offered once a month at the Museum, each session focuses on a different topic or theme.

The program uses a range of art activities to improve motor skills, language development and visual learning, while fostering interest in the arts and providing socialization for preschoolers and their caregivers.

Now, through the Biddle Foundation grant, the Museum will conduct five Tot Time programs a month for a year for a total of 60 visits to public libraries and parks-and-recreation centers that will reach 1,200 pre-school children and their caregivers from diverse and disadvantaged populations in Asheville and Buncombe County. One location will be Stephens-Lee recreation center, located in one of the city’s historically African-American communities.

Museum expansion

To better serve underserved, rural and low-wealth students throughout Western North Carolina through outreach activities, on-site programs and teacher-training opportunities, the Museum is in the midst of a capital campaign to raise $24 million to renovate and expand its facilities, including doubling its education spaces.

With funds from the campaign, which already has raised $18.5 million, the Museum will have over twice the amount of studio classroom space, divided into two classrooms and accommodating larger class sizes and school groups, as well as multiple programs for different audiences at the same time.

By expanding its Literacy Through Art and Tot Time programs during the renovation and expansion of its facilities, the Museum can “learn from the diversity of our communities what our partnerships should look like going forward for the next generation,” Myers says.

A key question is “how can the Museum best serve this diversity of communities,” she says. “The Museum doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all solution.”

The arts “spread everyone’s wings and open up a universe of inspiration, innovation and creativity that can affect every aspect of one’s life,” she says. “They provide a whole other way of opening up dialogue and discourse among people and individuals who interact with the creativity found in the arts.”

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