“The arts is all about imagination and motivation,” says Jeannine Chartier, executive director of VSA Arts of Rhode Island. “If you bring those two things to other subject matters they become more engaging.”
VSA (Vision, Strength, Access) Arts has been promoting the importance of arts education, particularly for students with disabilities, for nearly 20 years. This year, they awarded 12 schools statewide more than $21,000 in grant money to fund arts-in-education programming that benefit students with disabilities.
Toll Gate High School and Oakland Beach Elementary were two Warwick institutions chosen to receive Access the Arts grant money this year.
Toll Gate is using the money for a photography project lead by Keith Jochim. Through photographs, the students will study historical events like the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The students will create costumes, characters and tableaus, and then photograph each other individually and in groups. They’ll also be collaborating with the Spanish language teacher to incorporate foreign language studies.
In order to develop their characters and tableaus, the students will have to pore over their history texts.
“Art always requires research,” said Chartier.
Funding for the grants comes from the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“The purpose is to improve both the quality and quantity of arts programs that students with disabilities can participate in,” Chartier said.
Funding can go toward classes that work specifically with disabled students, or for integrated arts programs. Schools must partner with an artist and submit proposals for specific grants in the fall.
“When they put their proposal together they apply for a specific amount,” said Chartier. “They put together a whole timeline that includes materials, money, goals and objectives.”
Chariter said the focus isn’t placed on the end result, as it so often is in the arts, but on what the process will do for the students.
“We believe that everybody should have access to the arts,” she said. “Arts in general provides creative problem solving skills that work for all kids.”
The programs often combine academic subject matter with an arts-oriented approach. Chartier said all arts programs have a basis in strengthening literary skills.
“You can’t illustrate a story if you don’t have a story to tell,” she said.
Other programs that received Access the Arts grants, like Oakland Beach, hone in on areas like math and science.
Oakland Beach students will participate in a school-wide theater movement project that focuses on various grades’ science curriculum. Students will improvise skits, write scripts and create characters based on their science studies.
“The sixth graders are working on sound, wind and other scientific principals,” said Chartier. “They’ll draw inspiration from the Blue Man Group.”
Students in grades 1 through 6 will be working with professional stage artist Amy Lynn Budd, who has worked with the school for seven years.
“The primary goal is to create performances based on academic content,” said Budd.
All of the classes at Oakland Beach have a 10 to 20 percent inclusion rate of special education students.
“As I’m working with the students I often can’t tell which ones have special needs,” said Budd.
Chartier said arts-based learning methods are effective for all children, but particularly for those with disabilities.
“For students with disabilities who sometimes learn better in a non-traditional manner like the arts, there’s all of these non-verbal ways they can learn … like learning math through dance. And often the issues around the disability disappear.”
Chartier said she has seen students with disabilities strive in arts programs, and behavioral issues melt away.
“If you make them an active part of learning, they become engaged in it and surpass the level of expectation,” she said.
Budd said students will be able to perform their shows for their fellow classmates and their families at the conclusion of her program at Oakland Beach.
“Making theater with kids allows them an exceptional opportunity to show what they know,” said Budd. “We want to create performances with children that are fun and exciting to watch, and that the children enjoy so much they don’t even realize they’re working.”