District art lessons color elementary-level classes

When Oak Harbor Elementary School art teacher Karen Merrill heard one of her first grade students identify a Seattle Art Museum sculpture as that of artist David Smith, she was thrilled.

Merrill said her young student could identify the sculpture because of exposure to the artist’s techniques and style she had acquired while applying visual art techniques to other classroom studies, such as science, math or social studies, during Merrill’s art classes.

As Merrill reflects over the past four years, she said she has seen an improvement in students’ academic levels and skill development since Oak Harbor voted “yes” for the Maintenance and Operations Levy in 2000. To ensure the continuation of students’ positive growth and academic development, she said it is essential that Oak Harbor citizens renew the school levy on March 8.

The implementation of art programs and the hiring of specialized art teachers are some of the improvements paid for with the approximately $2 million the levy produces each year.

Since then, Merrill, who has taught art for more than 28 years, said children throughout Oak Harbor have had the opportunity to use the visual arts as a learning aid to grasp concepts and classroom subjects that they would otherwise only get to read about.

For example, Merrill takes multiplication problems and has students make paper collages with rows of geometric shapes that illustrate the rules of multiplication. Or, students will study other cultures, science concepts, geography, health or history and create works of art that depict different aspects of each of these subjects.

“Most of my program is integrated into what the kids are learning in the classroom, and then I fit the visual arts into that structure,” Merrill said. “Visual can enhance those kids that already get a concepts or help provide those that can’t quite grasp it a chance to see it.”

Her students make weavings as they learn about the the American Civil War and the anti-slavery movement; papier mache elephants and donkeys during the election season; watercolor paintings of vegetables as they learn about health and diet; as well as masks, murals, drawings, sculptures — the list is endless.

Carla Field, art teacher at Oak Harbor’s Hillcrest Elementary, said she also sees the visual arts as a learning enhancer.

Field said she has 22 classes come through her classroom a week. For each grade level, she tries to connect the art back to the concepts the students are learning in their other subjects.

“I think it’s nice for kids to have those connections — those inter-relationships,” Field said.

Field said it is the levy that makes all this possible. The levy money pays the art teachers’ salaries, the start up costs of getting classrooms equipped for art classes and for all the art supplies.

“We have some amazing kids in the program,” she said. “It is really nice to give them an art education they wouldn’t otherwise get.”

Christine Dixon, art teacher at Crescent Harbor Elementary, said she would hate to see all the progress students have made in the past four years discontinued if the levy is not renewed.

“Every year, I see them progressing and improving,” she said. “It would be a shame to bring them this far and them to drop them.”

Merrill said all six art teachers hired with the passing of the last levy feel the same way about their students, and want the art program to continue.

“This would just pull the rug right out from under them — from all the stuff that has been offered to them,” she said.

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