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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014

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Art education is taking a big hit this year thanks to tightening budgets.
Art education is taking a big hit this year thanks to tightening budgets.

Budget cuts increase challenges to art education

As tightening budgets have seen the widespread loss of art teachers across the district, Maryland Avenue Montessori is an example of an MPS school that has found a way to maintain art classes for its kids.

The solution is a welcome, if not perfect, scenario: the classes won't be taught by art educators, the funding for which went up in smoke with budget cuts in spring, but will be led by parent volunteers and a community member who possess art skills.

As is required, classroom teachers will be in the room during the weekly art classes to help with instruction, making it the kind of stop-gap measure a lot of schools would love to have.

Last month, I ran into a friend who is the father of two of kids who left the district in June for a suburban school.

His children attended Elm Creative Arts School, where he was very active. But when he saw what cuts would do to art programs in the district and at Elm, he decided to move his kids to a different Milwaukee County district.

Around the same time, I'd been talking to Mary Ellen Mulvey Quesada, a veteran art teacher in the district – at Craig and MacDowell Montessoris – who is currently on sabbatical to complete her full-time Montessori training – and she tells me that the cuts have been dire, especially at the lower grades.

"Our department of over 100 elementary art teachers, has now dwindled," she told me, estimating that only about 20 remain. "There are many more teachers in middle and high school, than elementary."

I was unable to get numbers from the district on how many art teachers are currently employed in schools at the various levels. Rumors were that some would be hired back after the third Friday count but I have been unable to confirm that.

Last May, Reagan IB High's art teacher, Chad Sperzel-Wuchterl told me that he already was spending an inordinate amount of time on remedial work with new students, because so few received any art education in the lower grades.

"I have to get them from elementary up to high school in four years," he said at the time. "As far as formal training goes, (there is) next to nothing. You can tell the ones who had it and those who didn't."

Quesada said that art teachers work hard to cultivate relationships with museums and other institutions that help provide kids with horizon-broadening activities. The layoffs of so many teachers will likely lead to the lapse of many of these connections.

"For the past several years, MacDowell has participated in the Art in the Garden show at the Villa Terrace. Students from MacDowell came to tour the museum and drew, wrote and took photos in the garden. We then created finished pieces during art class, which were shown to the public, along with several other schools. Parents and students came to the opening, it was a great experience for the kids. This year, we will not be participating."

She also pointed to similar relationships with the Haggerty Museum of Art and the Milwaukee Art Museum and the annual student art fundraiser, which in the past two years has raised thousands of dollars that were then matched by a corporate donor to help fund student camp experiences at Nature's Classroom.

Some schools, like La Escuela Fratney in Riverwest, have lost teachers to layoffs and reassignments that were long a part of the school culture.

"The morale is very low and everyone still seems a little shell-shocked from the layoff / reassignment process," Quesada said. "Many of us lost our schools and are having a hard time embracing the changes."

The MTEA's Art Education Committee has been actively working to support teachers through this difficult time, meeting with MPS' Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez and working with Chicago art teachers on an art exhibition that would help draw attention to the challenges facing art education in public schools.

The group met last month and will continue to meet, said Quesada, to find ways to support arts education in the district.

"It's great that Maryland parents are going to be helping out this year," she added. "Unfortunately, most schools don't have this level of parental involvement."

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