As school arts programs continue to suffer nationwide, the performing and visual arts are flourishing in one Cedar City school, thanks to support from an acclaimed arts foundation and six students from Southern Utah University’s College of Performing and Visual Arts. Under the auspices of the ArtsBridge America program and with a grant from the Sorenson Legacy Foundation, SUU dance, theatre, music and visual arts students are working within North Elementary School to provide ongoing arts education for Cedar City youth.
Mentored by field-specific Performing and Visual Arts faculty members at SUU, these six students worked with SUU alumnus Melanie Skankey, the lead teacher at North Elementary for the Arts Bridge program, to create lessons that integrate science concepts into art projects.
SUU's ArtsBridge students spent the fall semester creating innovative lesson plans and, over the course of this spring semester, have spent 25 hours each in classes teaching various science units, utilizing the arts to help students gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter. This is done in the name of North Elementary's STEAM School designation, new this year, where the arts are emphasized as well as science, math, engineering and technology.
A culminating performance and exhibit, dubbed "The Big Event," will wrap up North's first year as a partnership STEAM school with SUU in the ArtsBridge initiative on Friday, April 12, at 2 p.m. in the the Randall L. Jones Theatre on SUU's campus. Students from all six grade levels, kindergarten through fifth, will perform and present their projects.
Recognizing the great value in this new program at North Elementary, Michael Bahr, co-chair of SUU’s ArtsBridge efforts at SUU alongside SUU’s Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts Education Endowed Chair Carrie Trenholm, commented, "Art is the most valuable tool we have to teach all curriculum. This program proves that by dancing to create geological formations, or learning math through music or historical processes through theatre, students better retain what they learn."
Students will do all that and much, much more, according to North principal, Ray Whittier. "Our kids have learned new dances and songs, played new instruments, and tried their hands at new kinds of art projects. They have absolutely loved it. In fact, I think it has been their favorite parts of their school days."
Whittier said the expertise SUU's arts students brought into North's classrooms has "accomplished more than we ever could have without their talent and time." He added, "And their enthusiasm has been contagious—our kids have just eaten it up."
Friday's Big Event for North and SUU marks a welcome return of the ArtsBridge program to iron County, after a two-year hiatus due to inadequate funding once the grant-driven program’s initial budget was exhausted.
Bahr emphasized that the benefits of this program go well beyond the elementary students. "Five years ago [ArtsBridge America] changed the lives of hundreds of our young students, but it also solidified ten SUU students as successful arts teachers." Bahr said he is "thrilled" the program has been revitalized.
ArtsBridge America is a network of 31 universities in 16 states and Northern Ireland and their local schools that confronts the problem of the elimination of the arts from K-12 schools. The arts are a critical component of education—they provide an alternative means to reach out to disadvantaged learners, particularly those with language acquisition delays. Through ArtsBridge projects in urban and low-income areas, using dramatic and visual arts and digital technology, students have developed their creativity and imagination, improved their language skills, increased their motivation to succeed in academic learning and reinforced their values of peace, community and diversity. ArtsBridge is also a means for university students to provide creative service to their communities while learning the value of social activism and developing long-term commitments to help the disadvantaged.
In addition to being a a Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program arts specialist now, Skankey, who is over all of the North Elementary STEAM school's arts education efforts as the school’s arts specialist, is a former ArtsBridge America student herself. In fact, the ArtsBridge program at SUU would have ended even sooner in its first iteration had Skankey not spent her senior year volunteering her time to continue the program free of charge while she finished her studies at SUU after serving in the same official capacity on a stipend during her junior year.
North Elementary teachers and SUU faculty alike report being thrilled with the innovation of the SUU students’ work teaching the young students and directing this project.
SUU's new class of ArtsBrige students includes Jessie Brinson, Kelsey Hayes and Alexandria Wall, who all work with students in dance, while percussionist Marissa Brown provides musical experiences. Contributing the program's theatre foundation is Madisen Hayes, a theatre arts major. And enhancing the visual experience for youngsters is Jacqueline Trujillo, an art and design major. Brinson is mentored by Chien-Ying Wang, assistant professor of dance; Kelsey Hayes is supervised by Denise Purvis, assistant professor of dance; and Wall is guided by Paul C. Ocampo, associate professor of dance. Dr. Lynn Vartan, assistant professor of percussion and world music, mentors Brown; Peter Sham, associate chair for SUU's Department of Theatre Arts and Dance, guides Madisen Hayes; and Ron Spears, assistant professor of drawing and entertainment design, works with Trujillo.
Though The Big Event marks North's largest STEAM "production," Whittier was eager to run through a long list of innovative programs and projects that have come to fruition in North's first year as a partnership STEAM school with SUU.
"This really is just one aspect of our STEAM effort. Our curriculum is coming along really well and we've had some great activities with science and engineering this year."
Off the top of his head, Whittier cited departments across SUU's campus who have been involved in bringing the STEAM curriculum and activities to fruition in its first year, including arts, the Sherratt Library, science and education.
"There is no way we would have been able to pull this school year off so seamlessly without SUU's help—I sincerely mean that. They have been so supportive, have given so much time, and bring so much expertise to the table. I am just really looking forward to everything that is coming in our school's future."
In short, Whittier said of The Big Event and everything else North has done alongside SUU faculty and students, "We're really having the time of our lives."
Admission to The Big Event is free and open to the public. Registration for North Elementary's 2013-14 school year is also still open to families across the county. North's STEAM model is part of the Iron County School District, and enrollment is free, as it is at all other public schools. Interested parents may call 435-586-2845 for more information.