How does a Title I elementary school create and sustain a successful art program during a time when there is no funding for arts education? Some very determined and dedicated AEA members, along with a very supportive faculty, figured out a way and have maintained it for 10 years.
When Rebecca Threlkeld became the new principal at Clanton Elementary School more than 10 years ago, she knew she wanted to provide arts education to the students. Principal Threlkeld also knew that it would be difficult to do in a school that is 70 percent Title I. Undeterred by the obstacles, she came up with a plan and enlisted Julie Harrison, a kindergarten teacher who had an extensive background in art, to bring it to fruition.
Harrison admits it was a little scary leaving one position for another. “Kindergarten teachers have job security and are mandatory, art teachers are not. But I took a leap of faith and here we are ten years later. I love what I do.”
Harrison teaches art to all 41 homerooms, ranging from preschool (K4) through second grade. The classes are in a rotation that brings them to Harrison once every other week. In a two-week time frame, she works with every student in the school – more than 750 students. Harrison also teaches a reading intervention class for second-graders every afternoon and helps out in other areas as well. “When I don’t have a class, I help out wherever there is the greatest need. I am always glad to help out colleagues in any way I can,” Harrison stated.
Since the Education Trust Fund does not support funding for art education, Harrison has to raise the necessary funds to purchase the materials she needs – paints, canvasses, clay, tiles, etc. Once word reached the community, a local businessman donated $1,000 to purchase the initial supplies needed to get the program off the ground. From that point, Harrison began researching grants and programs for additional funding.
With faculty participation and support, Harrison has raised more than $6,800 through the Box Tops for Education program. She hosts an art show each year where parents can purchase the framed artwork of the students. She also auctions off ceramic plates with students’ thumbprints that she creates using kilns purchased with the money raised. To date, the auctions and art show funds have also enabled Harrison to build a small structure for her two kilns, which allow her to introduce her students to pottery and clay, and to continue purchasing the necessary materials for the art program.
Like every other educator in Alabama, Harrison often spends hundreds of dollars out of her own pocket in her classroom. To save money on supplies, she repurposes things to use with her classes. She uses items that are usually thrown out like toilet paper rolls, plastic sauce cups, plastic food containers, etc. She also enlists family and friends to donate any of their discarded items that she may be able to use for her students.
Materials and supplies, along with artwork for 750 students could certainly take up a lot of space. With so many students, Harrison had to devise a shelving system to organize each class’s work, along with additional shelving of her own to house all of the materials. She also repurposes old furniture finds to use in her classroom. The result, a bright and welcoming space, decorated with art that she created through college and continues to create at painting parties that she hosts for her local church.
To give back and say thank you to the faculty for their support of the program, Harrison created a small seating area outside of her classroom decorated with her art and mosaic tile tables she created.
“We’re very proud of this program. We’re thrilled that the students get this additional education in our school. It saddens me that this may be the only exposure to art that our students will have,” said Threlkeld. Currently, art education is not offered in any other schools in the system.
Even though the program is in its tenth year, Harrison continues searching for additional funding. In late February, she was awarded the Partners Enhancing Education in Chilton County (PEECh) Grant of $1,000. PEECh is a coalition of business, industry, civic, and educational interests committed to securing resources for educational projects which will enhance the quality of education in Chilton County and is sponsored by the Chilton Education Foundation.
With the grant money, she’ll be able to take her students to the Birmingham Museum of Fine Arts on a field trip. The money will pay for the buses and any additional costs incurred, guaranteeing that all students can attend.
According to Threlkeld, “The students thoroughly enjoy the program. The added benefit is Mrs. Harrison integrates math and literary concepts in the program that reinforce what the students learn in their classrooms. When students excel in art, it helps them become more confident and successful in other areas of their studies.”
In the meantime, never one to stand still, Harrison is currently working to earn national board certification. When she completes the process, she will be the first NBCT in Chilton County and one of only 20 NBCT art teachers in the state. The certification will join her five degrees: bachelor of elementary education, bachelor of art, masters in elementary education, masters in educational leadership, and Ed.S. in teacher leadership.