Parent volunteers help Tigard-Tualatin students tap into their creativity

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Parent volunteer Hilary Bublitz discusses Beatrix Potter at Alberta Rider Middle School on Tuesday. The district's art lit program turns 30 years old this week and has grown from a handful of parent volunteers to more than 220.
When Amy Wheatcroft walks into Tualatin Elementary School with her laptop and art supplies, everyone gets excited.

“It’s like she is Mrs. Clause,” said Wendy McDonnal.

Wheatcroft, like dozens of other parent volunteers across the district, is part of the district’s Art Literacy program, giving students art projects and teaching them about how to look at fine art.

“When we come in, those kids are excited,” Wheatcroft said. “For some of them, it’s their favorite day. They say, ‘Yay, it’s Art Lit day!”

It’s a sentiment that has been shared with students for decades across the district.

The program is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

When Tigard-Tualatin’s Art Literacy program began, it was little more than an idea to get more education about the fine arts into the classroom.

With no art teacher in elementary schools, parents stepped in, said McDonnal, who serves as the district’s Art Literacy coordinator.

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Fourth-grader Lisbet Calderon traces Beatrix Potter illustrations at Alberta Rider Elementary School on Tuesday. The district's Art Literacy program turns 30 this year, thanks to support from PSOs and parent volunteers.Parents come to classrooms once a month and talk about an artist, and then students emulate their work.

Parents taught students about a handful of artists at first, but that has since exploded to more than 90 artists. Those lessons are taught by more than 220 parent volunteers.

“It’s amazing what these parents are able to do,” said McDonnal, who started in the program as a parent volunteer at Durham Elementary in the 1980s.

“They study everything from the stone age to modern art,” McDonnal said. “They look at the Renaissance, impressionists, African American artists and everything else from A to Z.”

Parent-student organizations at each school and the Foundation for Tigard-Tualatin Schools fund the program, McDonnal added.

‘A beautiful thing’

The idea of the Art Literacy program is to teach students about art in the same way as other subjects, such as math or science, said Jennifer Brown, who manages the program for the district.

“We teach it as a methodical subject and build on vocabulary,” Brown said. “Art is not just a thing that has no meaning to it. It really is significant.”

Unlike other core subjects, parent volunteer Becki Pedersen said there is no right or wrong approach to art.

“And that’s such a beautiful thing,” she said.

By the time students leave elementary school, they are able to look at art in terms of color and balance in addition to having a broad knowledge of some of the most influential artists in history, Wheatcroft said.

“We were watching TV the other day, and my daughter said, ‘Hey, that’s Albrecht Durer,’” Wheatcroft said. “It gets imbedded in their head.”

Students get the chance to work with a variety of art supplies, including photography, clay and watercolors.

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Alberta Rider Elementary fourth- grader Clara Pane uses a water pen to enhance her water color drawing during art literacy class, Tuesday.“Our goal is to teach them that art can be done with fancy paints, yes, but it can also be done using pencils or crayons,” Pedersen said. “Some of these kids say, ‘I’m not good at this — I can’t draw,’ but then they find that they are great at clay or watercolors. I have seen that transformation of students in the classroom.”

Many students don’t have access to art supplies at home, Pedersen added. But even crayons or a pencil are enough to make something memorable, she said.

“There are some students who struggle academically, and art can sometimes be their only way out,” said Peterson, who has been volunteering in classrooms for five years.

“I have memories of children being overwhelmed and excited because there was finally something that they could really do well.”

Peterson remembered one boy in particular.

“There was one boy I had watched since kindergarten struggle and struggle, but we were studying (photographer) Ansel Adams and this boy took the most beautiful picture I have ever seen. Here is this boy with this great artistic ability.”

Wheatcroft said she knew little about art when she began volunteering, but wanted to be more involved in her son’s classroom.

That paid off in spades, Wheatcroft said. “We were at a fifth-grade graduation assembly, and I was just crying and balling through every class that graduated when my husband said, ‘You don’t know any of these kids, why are you crying?’ I said, ‘I know every single one of those kids.’ It’s awesome. It really brings you closer to the school.”

For more information about the district’s Art Literacy program, call 503-431-4134.

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