School board meeting focuses on art in elementary schools

Trustees Kay Fackrell and Tammy Walker wait for the Aug. 6 regular school board meeting to begin. (HERALD PHOTO/Sheila McGuire)

EVANSTON — The bulk of the time at the Aug. 6 regular meeting of the Uinta County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees was spent discussing art education in local elementary schools. Discussion time was placed on the agenda after district officials and board members received multiple letters from parents concerned about the lack of art education for young children. 

Superintendent Ryan Thomas and assistant superintendent Joe Ingalls opened the discussion with a presentation about curriculum for elementary students, including daily schedules and a focus on elements of education that are required under Wyoming state law. Thomas said state law requires that certain subjects be taught but gives each district local control over the curriculum used to teach those subjects. 

Mandated core knowledge areas include English language arts, math, science, social studies, fine and performing arts, physical education, health and safety, humanities, career/vocational education, foreign cultures and languages, government and civics and computer science. Core skills that must be taught include problem solving, interpersonal communication, computational thinking and applications, critical thinking, creativity and life skills, including personal financial management. 

While the core areas are mandated for students from first grade through high school, the state also requires that the emphasis for students in grades one through eight must be on reading, writing and math. 

Currently, elementary students are at school for 395 minutes per day, with schedules consisting of 120 minutes spent on language arts, 75-90 minutes on math, 30 minutes on social studies and 30-40 minutes of WIN time, which stands for What I Need and is time designated for students to receive more individualized instruction in core subjects. In addition, students spend approximately 75 minutes each day in “specials” rotations, including PE, music, media and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math), which is predominantly focused on science. All district elementary schools are required to have 45 minutes for lunch and recess, as well as an additional 15 minutes for another recess or brain break at some point during the day. 

Thomas said the focus in elementary schools has been on performing arts through school music programs. “We have some incredible music programs that most schools out there don’t have,” he said. At one point a dedicated art program was included in specials rotations, with two teachers split among the four elementary schools; however, for the past several years that has not been the case. 

Classroom teachers have no restrictions on the ability to incorporate visual art projects into regular classroom work, and many do; however, that is up to individual teachers and therefore is not consistent throughout the district. Ingalls said many students have teachers who are integrating art projects into other lessons, particularly in science classes. Thomas and Ingalls both said art lessons are also being incorporated into the new English language arts curriculum, particularly in lessons about the Renaissance and the importance of art in culture and history. 

Thomas said most of the comments received from parents regarding the need for art instruction focused on research on the benefits of art for kids, including better problem solving and creative thinking skills, as well as improved test scores. He said he agrees with all the comments and knows what the research says; however, the big problem is finding the time in an already-full school schedule to dedicate to art instruction.

Several parents attended the meeting and were given the opportunity to share public comments. Jessica Kendrick said she is strongly in favor of bringing back art instruction, citing research showing elevated achievement, improved attendance and the benefit to critical thinking skills. She said she appreciates efforts to integrate art into regular classroom lessons; however, she is concerned that is inconsistent across the district and therefore some students are being left behind. “If you spell Earth without art, all you’re left with is Eh,” she said, sharing a quote she had come across during her research. 

Parent Sarah Swann said she believes art would be beneficial for all students and suggested five minutes could be cut from a couple of the other curriculum areas to allow time for art. 

“Kids can’t sit still for the long periods of time they’re being asked to,” she said. Swann further said she believes the ability to make mistakes is encouraged in art, which is a stark contrast to other subjects, such as math. “Art teaches kids to make a mistake and make it into something better. Kids make mistakes and they need to have an opportunity for that mistake to be something good.” 

Pediatrician Dr. Bird Gilmartin said elementary art instruction is not in conflict with district goals or accountability standards, since art is part of the core knowledge requirements from the state and art has been proven to boost test scores. “Art is one of the only things proven time and time again to boost scores. Hammering kids for longer time periods and having them do drills doesn’t boost scores, but art does,” she said. 

Dr. Gilmartin said integrating art into regular classroom instruction is wonderful for those students whose teachers are doing so; however, she is also concerned it is inconsistent throughout the district. As a pediatrician, she is particularly concerned about children who don’t have the opportunity at home or through other programs to be creative, including kids who simply don’t have crayons, glue, scissors or other craft supplies in their homes. 

Board chair Jami Brackin asked parents, district staff and fellow board members if the discussion was about how to better integrate opportunities to create art into regular classroom instruction or about how to find time for a dedicated art program that would teach kids about the elements of art. Ryan Gilmartin said he is a former art educator and he is advocating for a dedicated art program. 

“I think we can pull a few minutes to get enough time to get one class a week,” he said. “At its essence, art is about form and content, an idea expressed in a body. Instead of thinking about trying to squeeze art into all these other programs, let’s go at this a different way and think about how we put math and science and other subjects into art,” before going on to reiterate the many benefits associated with allowing kids the opportunity to be creative. 

Trustee Tammy Walker said she likes the idea of integration because “kids’ brains work when their hands work.” However, she said she would like to see a dedicated art program. “If I had the power to change one thing, it would be this. If it were all up to me, I would say find the time and make it happen.” 

Brackin thanked everyone for their comments and said the discussion is not over.

“I don’t know what the solution is, but we’re working on it. I would like to hear input from teachers on how this can be consistent.”

She said she wanted to have elementary science teachers attend a future board meeting to speak about how art is being included in their STEAM instruction. 

Thomas said the expectation is that art needs to be incorporated into STEAM curriculum. 

“Our challenge is to provide the best possible educational program for all 2700 students in the district,” he said. “The schedule has gotten so tight that we’ve taken some of the creativity away from our teachers. Let’s find ways to add that innovation and creativity.”

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