Pilot program combines arts with environmental instruction

The City of Tacoma and Tacoma Public Schools partnered on a pilot program this school year that combined art projects with environmental lessons. It operated in five elementary schools, including Larchmont, Grant and Point Defiance.

City staff and two arts administrators gave a presentation on the pilot program during a recent meeting of Tacoma City Council’s Public Safety, Human Services and Education Committee.

The city has an ordinance directing 1 percent of the cost of city buildings be dedicated to public art. Mike Slevin from the Public Works Department noted many of its buildings are in locations where art would not be seen by many members of the public. An example of this is a new transfer center at the landfill. The 1 percent figure came to $235,000. Slevin said staff did not think placing art in a dirty, dusty environment was the best use for these funds. And in an era when art programs in schools have been reduced due to budget cuts, he saw this as a way to fill that gap.

For many years, the city has operated the EnviroChallenger program, which has city staff teaching environmental lessons to young students. He contacted Amy McBride, the city’s arts administrator to see if an arts component of the program could be developed and funded with the transfer center money.

Slevin noted that students in kindergarten through second grade were taken out of the EnviroChallenger program a few years ago. He thought an art component could bring environmental information to these children.

McBride took the idea to Tacoma Arts Commission, which gave its approval. Slevin said much care was taken to ensure the art lessons use this money in an appropriate manner. “It has to be very related to the utility mission,” he remarked. Lessons tie in to goals of the city such as promoting recycling and reducing the amount of garbage taken to the landfill.

Lorna Sutton from the city’s Community Relations Department said Arts Impact was contacted to operate the program. It is affiliated with Puget Sound Educational Service District. Sutton noted the existing EnviroChallenger program is funded with city government’s utilities such as solid waste. She said these utilities rely on education and outreach to help achieve their missions. She mentioned the new effort to get residents to recycle food scraps as an example.

All the lessons in the arts component are science based and align with the school district’s requirements.

Sibyl Barnum, executive director of Arts Impact, said the organization’s goal is to get arts instruction into classrooms. She considers this an ideal way for it to delve into science education and partner with the city. A focus group was assembled with the two staff in the EnviroChallenger program, teachers who have utilized their lessons and city staff.

Lesson plans were developed. Meredith Essex, lead arts educator with Arts Impact, said she approached this task with the goal to promote sustainability and meet standards for art classes for children in this age range. She noted many artists have been using recycled materials in their creations. Children had early lessons on sorting recyclable material from garbage. Kindergarten students made an environmental friend as part of the process. Old compact discs were used in one project.

The youth studied about recent installations at Museum of Glass and Tacoma Art Museum that used recycled materials.

Second graders built “insects” out of recycled materials. Third graders made models. Students in fourth and fifth grades read articles about respecting the environment and how students can make a positive impact on the ecosystem. They cut up magazines and calendars to make collages to reflect these themes.

Students were especially moved to learn about efforts to provide clean drinking water in India. Several approached their principals to say that they wanted to participate in such causes. “It was pretty exciting,” Essex remarked. “We had a good response.”

McBride said once the pilot ends in June, it will be evaluated and plans will begin for the 2012/13 school year.

McBride said she would like to see the program tie into summer activities and community gardens. “So far so good,” she said. “The schools are happy with it.”

Slevin said the program will cost about $80,000, so the initial funding will be used up in just under three years. He said other funding sources are being considered, such as future buildings in isolated locations that require the 1 percent arts funding. He expressed confidence there will be enough such projects to fund the program for some time.

“This program gets our message out and is a good use of our funds,” he said.

McBride said funds from sources outside city government will also be considered.


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