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Sellwood school loses art

Elective not a choice unless cash found to fund half-time post
by: L.E. BASKOW, Liz Capps confers with student Marissa Garcia about a drawing Garcia is working on in a beginning intermediate art class at Sellwood Middle School. Capps is retiring from teaching there, and her art classes may go with her due to budget cuts.

As the Portland Public Schools budget winds its way toward approval Monday, parents, teachers and principals across the district are dreading some of the program and staffing losses their schools will feel next year. In the Sellwood Middle School community, the outrage is over the school’s beloved art program, which will be cut next year as longtime art teacher Liz Capps plans to retire. “It’s understandable funding is squeezing something, but we’ve had a number of bond measures passed saying parents do want the arts taught to their students,” said Sue Van Loon, who teaches the International Baccalaureate art program at Cleveland High School, where most Sellwood kids move after eighth grade. “Now we’re getting contradictory here.” While Sellwood students next fall will have other electives such as band, marimba, physical education, Spanish language and shop, they won’t have any visual arts unless the school foundation or PTA steps up to fund a half-time position, Principal Helen Nolen said. “I highly value art,” she said. “It was an unbelievable choice.” Many say they’re especially shocked at Nolen’s decision to cut art, based on her history as an arts advocate. Before starting at Sellwood two years ago, she was the principal at Buckman Elementary, one of the district’s arts magnets, for eight years. Prior to that she led Jackson Middle School, where she sought and received a grant from the Leonard Bernstein Center for Learning, which funds the school’s full art curriculum. But Nolen said two budget and enrollment realities came into play. Two years ago, just before she arrived at Sellwood, the school was considered as a K-8 school during the districtwide reconfiguration process. But after the community balked — fearing a loss of its expansive curriculum, including art — former Superintendent Vicki Phillips asked the six schools in the Sellwood community to decide which of their buildings to close in the midst of a forecasted drop in neighborhood enrollment. In the end, the community avoided a closure by making some boundary changes that balanced the schools’ populations closer to 400. As a result, “They knew we’d eventually have less children here,” Nolen said. Sellwood since has dropped from 545 students to its current 460. And since fewer students means fewer teachers and staff, the decline has meant a loss of 3.85 full-time equivalent positions. In addition, under the district’s staffing formula, schools with 500 or more students get an extra FTE position — one that Sellwood lost out on, missing the cutoff by 40 students. Many in the community say they recognize those budget realities, but cutting art seems counter to all the recent talk by district leaders about fostering arts education and making classes more engaging so kids will want to stay in school. “It’s not just about one art program in one school,” said Emily Standish, chairwoman of the Parent Teacher Association at Cleveland and former parent of three kids at Sellwood. “It’s more about our values as a community. … It’s really pretty wonderful that people see the value in this. They see (art) as a core curriculum — it’s not fluff.” Standish questioned why the school can’t cut an administrator, reduce its counselor position to half-time, or forgo assigning a teacher to the computer lab. The school board is set to vote to approve the district’s budget for 2008-09 at its 7 p.m. Monday meeting at PPS headquarters, 501 N. Dixon St. Ironically, at the same meeting, Capps will be honored as an outstanding teacher for her 34 years of service at Sellwood. Capps said the news that her program wouldn’t be continued came as a shock to her as well as the community. “It was like a death of a really close friend,” she said. “I’ve devoted my life to this place; I love my students; I have some kids who are really serious about art.” Many in the community knew her art program as one of the best in the district, offering kids daily lessons that integrated art history as well as studio techniques. For example, one of Capps’ assignments had students draw their favorite food in the distinct styles of Roy Lichtenstein, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. While some might consider art to be a noncore subject, Van Loon, the Cleveland art teacher, vouches for its impact on students’ learning. “There’s a lot of problem-solving,” she said. “Working with the creative side of the brain, constructing things. It teaches kids in a lot of ways to be individuals. A lot of people are very visually oriented. … You don’t have a whole person if they’re not exposed to the arts.” Both Van Loon and Capps say the loss of art at Sellwood will mean that kids won’t enter high school — particularly the IB program — prepared for rigorous art studies. In addition, Capps worries that parents in the more affluent parts of the school boundaries, including Eastmoreland, will look to enroll their kids elsewhere — either by carpooling to other schools across town, choosing a private school or even transferring to the nearby Riverdale or Lake Oswego school districts. “There are parents who’ve already decided not to come (to Sellwood next year), and others sitting on the fence,” she said. “This is a community that votes with its feet.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.