By Marisa Steinberg and Jordan Toft

Olney: Arts Organization Helps Revive Community Art

Olney: Arts Organization Helps Revive Community Art
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Artist-in-residence Carol Royer designed an art project to illustrate mathematical concepts to students.

Artist-in-residence Carol Royer designed an art project to illustrate mathematical concepts to students.

In a fifth-grade math class at Grover Washington, Jr. Middle School, the positive influence of ArtsRising – an initiative under the umbrella of the nonprofit Philadelphia Education Fund – is immediately apparent. The whiteboards are covered in intricate sketches of faces and a handmade color wheel hangs behind a cluster of desks where students draw self-portraits in chalk pastels. Add an artist-in-residence and you have the typical Friday morning arithmetic class.

“If we didn’t have ArtsRising, we wouldn’t have any visual arts at all,” said fifth-grade teacher Alison Barnes.

Indeed, three years ago a snapshot of math class at Grover looked similar to rest of students’ school day at the time – one noticeably lacking in visual art. There were no art classes, let alone arts integration into other subject matter. The curriculum changes that have since followed are  all part of ArtsRising’s mission to revive participation in the arts through a variety of outlets.

“It’s not just about making art,” said ArtsRising Coordinator Ambrose Liu. “It naturally broadens their horizons.”

The three-year-old initiative is active in seven communities throughout the city. Each community is anchored by an ArtsZone Hub School where collaboration facilitated by ArtsRising between local businesses and organizations helps get school art programs back on their feet.

This year marks the completion of phase one of the organization’s work in Olney. The time has been spent laying the groundwork for arts programs throughout the neighborhood and bringing together various groups to combine resources to promote the arts, especially for the youth. At Grover Washington, Jr. Middle School, this support has meant class field trips to art hubs around the city like World Cafe Live and visits from arts leaders such as Philadelphia Young Playwrights.

“These are experiences that we wouldn’t get if we weren’t working with ArtsRising,” Barnes said.

Government funding for the arts has decreased during the past several years, making schools more reliant on community-based organizations to pick up the slack. An analysis of the Philadelphia School District’s staff lists by recently revealed that fewer than a third of city schools employ both music and art teachers and 66 area schools are without either.

“Some kids say this is the first time they’ve done an art project in years,” said Carol Royer, one of the school’s artists-in-residence.

Royer is currently working with one fifth-grade math class on creating a large stained-glass mural of students’ self portraits. The project is still in the preliminary stages and the children are finishing up chalk pastel sketches of themselves. Royer said sketching facial proportions helps to illustrate various mathematical ideas.

“Part of all of my residencies is to integrate other subject areas,” Royer said.

With the help of ArtsRising, various artists have visited the school and led projects during the past three years.

With the help of ArtsRising, various artists have visited the school and led projects during the past three years.

Visual arts activities such as Royer’s have had a significant impact on students and has even proven to boost attendance, said Grover Washington, Jr. Middle School Teacher Support Leader Romeo Cochrane. However, the school was not completely deprived of the arts before ArtsRising’s partnership.

“We do have a great music program here, but it’s only select kids that get to participate in that,” Barnes said. “So it’s really great to have these other experiences for them to participate in.”

To make that music program more accessible, ArtsRising took a substantial role in organizing the school’s first musical production, Once Upon This Island, three years ago. Now, transitioning into phase two of its community involvement, the organization is working on helping the school maintain the musical production on its own. Several of the original music teachers who helped produce the musical have left the school, however, the program remains strong with its third musical, Aladdin,  set to debut this week.

“This show is still awesome and that has to do with the staff because other teachers support it as well,”  Cochrane said of the transition. “It’s not just the music teachers.”

It’s the epitome of ArtsRising’s ultimate goal.

“Our hope is to get these things to be self-sustaining,” Liu said. “We want this to be able to become a tradition in this school.”

A major part of getting art programs back in action is fostering collaborations between various community pillars. In Olney, this means hosting monthly community meetings. Liu has rallied the support of the local family-owned Shop Rite, which frequently supplies food and refreshments for arts events and recently hosted a performance of a local youth choir and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, which regularly houses an open mic night, among other organizations.

Students worked with chalk pastels to create self-portraits for an upcoming project.

Students worked with chalk pastels to create self-portraits for an upcoming project.

“ArtsRising has been very instrumental in terms of being a community liaison,” Cochrane said. “It’s a link between what’s going on in the community and how we can support them and how they can support us.”

Liu and his team at ArtsRising hope to continue to build bridges between the school’s art program and the rest of the community throughout the next phases of the initiative. A large Olney arts festival is in the works for the summer to showcase students’ and community members’ creative projects.

“We plan on spending the next three years deepening our work within the Olney community,” Liu said. “And also building a model of interaction and engagement.”

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