Community-based art education gives children an edge in the classroom

Watch a multimedia interview with Dr. Beth Krensky about her work at the Pioneer Craft House.

Story and multimedia by MICHAEL OMAN

In South Salt Lake, parents are using community-based art education to give their children an upper hand in the classroom. Studies suggest such programs are actually a success.

A recent Dan Jones study concluded that such programs help improve academic performance overall. “They do better in math; they do better in science, history, when arts are woven into the curriculum,” Lisa Cluff, the director of Friends of Art Works for Kids, told KSL.

Utah hosts a number of after-school programs dedicated to introducing youth to the arts. The good news is that many of these programs slipped past state legislators’ guillotine and will receive funding for at least another year.

For seven years now Dr. Beth Krensly’s students, from the University of Utah, have facilitated a program she calls, “Art in the Community.” Each year her students design and teach various forms of art to participating elementary-aged youth through the Pioneer Craft House. Typically there are three classes children may choose from: mosaics, ceramics, and, for the last two years, animation. At the end of a five-week period the class hosts an opening to present the completed projects to the community.

“It gives them an opportunity to get exposed to a lot of different things that they probably wouldn’t have known,” said Myrna Clark, who enrolled her then 9-year-old son William in a pinhole photography class a few years back. She pointed out that many children do in fact have art classes during normal school hours. To her this usually means just doodling pictures with crayons or paint. That’s what made Krensky’s program stand out. It goes beyond the ordinary art class permitting children to work with a variety of materials.

In fact, Myrna Clark noted, not only was her son exposed to a new form of art, he had to build his camera from scratch. “I’m sure he never would have known how to put together a camera with a box of oatmeal,” she said. Constructing his own camera provided him with knowledge about the inner mechanics of a camera.

Innovation is the key skill classes like this teach, she said. “You can totally use different stuff other than going and buying a Canon for 400 or 500 bucks.”

Krensky explained that innovative thinking is indeed one of the key ingredients to a successful community art project. Participants learn to “try something, be willing to fail and then try it again and be creative in addressing something in an engaged kind of way,” she said. “I think that idea of stepping into the realm of being able to fail is very important for creativity and for invention.”

The Clark family said what kids learn through these programs goes far beyond endowing its students with creative ability. “Today most kids only know about digital cameras,” said Bill Clark, William’s father. “The concept of where this came from and what it’s all about, they have no idea.”

Bill Clark said he likes the idea that Krensky’s program encompasses every aspect of education. It may be an art class but through this class his son also gained a thorough history lesson. “You can see it in a different light. […] And you can appreciate the art of the past,” he said.

“Collectively, you can put all your core classes into an art project,” Myrna Clark added. With the photography class kids also learned how to take measurements and how to properly prepare the chemical used to develop the photos, adding both a math and science aspect she said.

“It was fun,” William continued, “just to go into the dark room and process them.”

In addition, it’s also a place of possibility.

Audrey Livingston, a University of Utah student facilitating the mosaics class this semester,  said, “I think that this environment gives a great opportunity to the children to learn about art in particular but also it is a great opportunity for us as students at the University of Utah to get them excited about going to college and continuing their education.”

There are other programs similar to Krensky’s in Utah. The Beverly Taylor Sorenson Art Learning Program (BTS) is a program that works with 56 schools statewide. As explained on the Davis School District website, its goal is to integrate all varying fields of study into a single art class.

Despite all the good programs like BTS and Krensky’s “Art in the Community” class do, it can be a struggle to find funding. BTS faced the possibility of budget cuts state legislators proposed in early February as a remedy to the $313 million shortfall. Luckily, that’s no longer the case. Lawmakers decided not to make any cuts to the program.

It’s a bigger struggle for Krensky’s class, however. The number of students enrolling in the course determines the class budget. This means anywhere between $400 and $1200 each year she teaches the course. “This needs to cover all of the art materials […] and paying mentor artists,” she said. To cover the art materials alone is a minimum of $600.

University policy prohibits using class funds to purchase food provided at the event’s opening and to pay the artist mentors, forcing the class to seek additional outside funding. “The year-to-year looking for additional funds makes the course difficult to teach.” Krensky said. “We often rely on donated materials and I write additional grants to support mentor artists.”

Seeking outside support isn’t easy. During a fundraiser earlier this month on the university campus, the class outreach group only managed to raise $30. In addition, the group hoped to receive donations from local bakeries as a thank you to those donating. That effort fell through. Many backed out at the last minute needing more time to fill the order.

The Clarks say it would be devastating if the course were to disappear. They say the exposure to university students children receive through Krensky’s class is priceless. “Yeah, I can grab a group of kids from junior high and walk around the U of U but they see them once and then they come back,” Myrna Clark said. On the other hand, programs like Krensky’s last for several weeks she said, giving children repeated exposure to university students.

“I think it’s great that he had exposure to University of Utah students who have a passion for what they do,” Bill Clark added.

Reflecting on his experience, William, now 12, has one message to the university: “It’s one of their best programs and just continue it on as long as they can. Maybe longer.”