McPherson Unveils New Art Studio With a Little Help From Its Friends

By Patty Wetli | Friday, May 4, 2012

Left to right: Kelly Sul (FOMS), Dana Stein (FOMS), Michael Gallagher (McPherson), Bob Farster (FOMS). Credit: Patty Wetli

For gym class, students head to the gymnasium, where activities are led by a gym teacher. For library, they go to the library, staffed by a librarian. For art? In elementary schools, the subject is often taught catch as catch can in classrooms, by English and science teachers alike. Thanks to its “Friends of” group, McPherson Elementary, 4728 N. Wolcott Ave., at last has a studio dedicated exclusively to art.

Michael Gallagher, a third-grade bilingual instructor, helped spearhead the effort on the faculty end. He explained that while McPherson promotes monthly art themes school-wide — Impressionism, Surrealism, etc. — in the absence of a full-time art instructor, classroom teachers are left to their own devices.

“The way it is now, [students] are being taught about art,” he said. “There are second-graders who know about Cubism. Wouldn’t it be great to make a project informed by what they learned?”

Friends of McPherson (FOMS) stepped in with the funds to transform an unused room into a dedicated art studio, providing chairs and initial supplies to the tune of $1,100, according to Dana Stein, FOMS treasurer. Gallagher, who has a background in art, contributed a number of his own lesson plans — “Here’s how you can teach geometry with Cubism” — with the goal of creating an environment more conducive to a hands-on art class.

“We’re trying to get the ball pushed over the hill,” he said.

For FOMS, which organized less than two years ago, the art studio is the first project the group has tackled start to finish. (As part of the same initiative, FOMS is also partially funding a six-week after school art class in conjunction with Lillstreet’s ArtReach program.) “I think there’s a fear with ‘Friends of’ of the attitude, ‘We’re going to change the school,’” said Stein. “We came in and started talking about their goals and what their needs were.”

Art, though a valuable tool for expression, is typically one of the first subjects to fall under the budget axe as schools struggle to hit math and reading testing targets. “It’s harder to put a quantitative value on art and that’s why it gets cut out,” said Elena Rakochy of ArtReach. Parents, teachers and community groups like FOMS are working to swing the pendulum back in art’s favor.

“We as a city, and the Board of Education, need to refocus what kinds of programs help achievement,” said Stein, a former teacher herself, who holds a master’s degree in early childhood education. “With art, you’re using all your senses, different thought processes, different learning styles.”

Where much of the current curriculum focuses on right and wrong answers, art promotes a more flexible approach to problem solving. “They can see a medium where it’s not black and white,” said Julie Jensen, a special education instructor at McPherson who also heads up the school’s Girl Scout troop.

“It gets their brains thinking more creatively,” added Gallagher. “The thing about imagination is that it’s taken for granted. Everyone thinks kids are so creative and imaginative, but they don’t get outlets for it.”

Now, at McPherson, there’s a space for nothing but.

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