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Art all their own

Special school encourages drawing outside the lines
by: L.E. Baskow, David West and Anissa Cohen examine a piece they worked on at Gately Academy, a private middle school associated with Providence Portland Medical Center. Directed by artist Sue Lau and inspired by the works of Georgia O’Keeffe, students created panels that became the mural — each panel is a flower, every flower as individual as the middle-schooler who made it.

Kids at the Gately Academy in Northeast Portland are expected to buy into their class work, but there's one thing they're asked to believe in above all else.

Themselves.

The academy, a private middle school, was designed to help youngsters navigate the often choppy waters of adolescence despite the learning disabilities that landed them there, and to send them away with a renewed sense of themselves.

And art teacher Abby Houston has a lot to do with that.

All students at Gately, created through the nearby Providence Portland Medical Center, take art class twice a week. Houston, an art therapist by training, says that's where a sizable brushstroke of self-discovery takes place.

'Typical school art curriculum is focused on skill-based learning. You have to learn how to draw a three-dimensional box,' Houston says. 'I teach through a material-centered approach, the way the kids process using those materials. The kids here haven't been successful using a by-the-book approach.'

The 45 students at Gately have conditions such as anxiety issues, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and Asperger's syndrome and other mild forms of autism.

'Most of the students came to us with a learning difference that has impeded their growth,' says the school's director, David Ball. And most are not far away from a return to the educational mainstream for high school.

By providing a safe environment, a sense of community and some adaptive skills, Gately - and its art program - teaches kids that their 'differences' can be managed in a conventional school setting.

The school's halls are filled with examples of student work, some of which was on display last month in a show at Providence Hospital.

In the lobby is a large mural consisting of dozens of panels created by students under the tutelage of Portland artist Sue Lau and inspired by Georgia O'Keeffe. Each is a flower, although the styles and colors used vary dramatically.

'She said draw a flower, but it can be whatever you feel like making,' says eighth-grader Anissa Cohen, 13. 'I decided I didn't want to make it look like a normal flower.'

'I just wanted to do something weird,' says David West, an 11-year-old from Lake Oswego. 'At my old school, it wasn't like this kind of art.'

'There is no right way and wrong way to do art,' Houston says. 'We don't have kids looking at one another and comparing themselves to one another, because the kids are coming up with something that's completely their own.

'They don't have the pressure of making something look exactly one way. They have something that is cool-looking but is unique to them. It builds frustration tolerance.'

Houston adds that ADD and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, cause impulsivity: 'They haven't had a lot of success in finishing things. He struggles academically. A kid like that, he'll have these interesting ideas. He comes into art, and it's almost like he comes into his own. He finds some control within that artistic process.'

Peers build a community

Teachers and administrators at the school say the process-oriented approach to art is part of a larger philosophy at Gately, one that begins with encouraging kids to take full ownership of themselves and their disorders.

'They're not savvy enough to say, 'I have some issues I'm struggling with.'' says Ball, an educator for 31 years. 'They're middle school kids. They're not adults. We help them strategize this process. We say, 'This is who you are, this is how you move forward in the real world.' '

'A lot of these kids come having been misunderstood by their community,' Houston says. 'Because of that, they've been wounded. The most important thing is helping them understand that they belong here. They've been told they're not good enough. They come here and we tell them not only are you good enough, you can be better.'

Apart from their classes, students have something called Challenge at the end of each day.

'Challenge is activities that help us work together,' says Anissa, the eighth-grader. 'If something's really hard, you can try to figure out a way to work as a team. It's a way to communicate with each other without getting angry and to listen to each other's ideas.'

Ball says: 'We want them to be creative, but they have to be able to say, 'We have to do a project together as a group.' '

'Everyone understands'

To observe the students interacting is to see a population of adolescents engaged in some decidedly unadolescent behavior. Seated around a table to show off individual projects recently, the kids were unfailingly patient with one another.

'Everyone understands how everyone else feels,' Anissa says. 'You feel comfortable being yourself.'

Anissa, who has ADD, speaks about how she struggled academically before arriving at Gately.

'All the work was really hard for me. I couldn't focus,' she says. 'The teachers would yell at me for staring off into space.

'I've learned to handle my disabilities. I can get distracted and stuff, but it's not like I'm constantly on to something else.'

Ellen Cohen, Anissa's mom, says Gately has engineered a turnaround in her daughter.

'Her anxiety about getting everything right would get in the way of her performance,' Cohen says. 'She was at grade level, but she worked so much harder than the other kids. We would spend all night doing homework.

'It turned her into a totally different person. She went in hating math. Now she's getting A's in algebra. It gave her what she needed so she could feel more confident.'

Anissa, who enjoys creative writing, musical theater and hip-hop dance, plans to attend Riverdale High, a small public school in Southwest Portland, next year.

'Some kids with a learning disorder can be really smart, but they don't know how to get it out,' says 12-year-old David Boedigheimer, who has dyslexia. 'I have learned to take control of what I have and not get distracted as much.

'I have more confidence than usual because I have friends now.'

Strength lost and found

'I was one of those losers that losers didn't want to hang out with,' says Dylan Ten Eyck, a garrulous 14-year-old. At Gately, he says, 'everyone hangs out with everybody. It makes me feel stronger. I can get along with people. I'm not as shy as I was.'

Perhaps no Gately parent is more appreciative of the academy than Patricia Ten Eyck, Dylan's mother.

'It saved Dylan's life,' she says flatly.

Ten Eyck says her son, always 'a quirky kid,' was diagnosed with ADD, anxiety disorder and clinical depression early in school, but he got by because his father taught at the same Vancouver, Wash., school the boy and his younger brother attended.

Dylan hit bottom when he moved to another school in sixth grade.

'He got totally lost,' his mother says. 'By the time December rolled around, he was falling apart.'

She says Dylan struggled academically, was bullied by other students and became physically ill, losing weight from an already slight, 70-pound frame. He began telling fellow students that he planned to kill himself.

Even when Ten Eyck arranged Dylan's classes so that she could spend mornings with him at home, the boy could barely bring himself to enter the school when she dropped him off.

'Every day I drove away just sobbing,' his mother remembers.

Gately and its art program changed that, she says.

'Ever since he was very young, he has loved to draw; it's what calms him down. I think it's been extremely important to him. He uses art as a way to express himself and his feelings.

'Dylan has matured in ways that I couldn't imagine over the last couple years. Right now, if somebody said to him, 'You're weird,' he'd say, 'You're right, this is who I am and that's fine.' Gately has given him that confidence that who he is is OK.

'He speaks in visual terms. He said at his old school he was a red flower among a sea of yellow flowers. He said he had a dark cloud around him. Now he says the dark cloud's not in the sky.'

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