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Chemeketa instructor takes time off to fight for art

A call to attention is projected on the side of Highland Elementary School. Photo by Laura Mack

“I have a problem,” said Chemeketa art instructor Laura Mack as she began a talk at TEDxSalem 2018. “I’m an artist and an art education advocate, and I live in a city that has no art teachers in the elementary schools.”

It’s true: Salem-Keizer School District does not employ any art teachers at the elementary level. According to Mack’s TEDxSalem talk, the district hasn’t provided art education to elementary students for over 35 years. To some, that may seem like a trivial issue, but for Mack, it’s a crucial piece of early learning that our system is failing to provide. In order to focus on raising awareness of the issue and work on addressing the problem, Mack has taken a sabbatical from teaching.

“It matters. It’s a part of humanity. It’s something we all need,” Mack said. “There’s beautiful things all around us all the time.”

When budgets get tight, however, art is often included in the first round of cuts, and the Salem-Keizer district isn’t in the best position to revamp its curriculum. According to a 2017 report by the Statesman Journal, Oregon not only has some of the largest class sizes nation wide, but also ranks 35th for school funding.

“Because of measure 5 and 50, because of the increasing cost of PERS, schools are just not getting enough… How can I start screaming about prioritizing art teachers when we have the fifth highest class size in the country?” Mack said. “The priority goes to things that matter the most for funding. And those are the scores that schools get on their standardized tests. That helps them maintain their funding levels.”

But Mack doesn’t think that art is just a luxury: its usefulness as an educational tool goes beyond fostering the ability to create the “beautiful things around us all the time.”

“There’s a creative mind behind every product we touch and every system we encounter,” Mack said in her TEDxSalem talk. “Medicine, transportation, your cell phone, paper clips.”

“However,” Mack said, “what students actually need is different than what the priority has become.”

How can the problem be addressed when resources are already so tight? The answer, Mack said, involves “thinking horizontally.”

“That would be vertical: adding, throwing more money at it. But if you think horizontally… how can we work with existing resources to get art in schools?”

Currently, Mack works with volunteers to teach art literacy classes around the Salem-Keizer area. But time and logistics permit only three one hour classes a year.

“It’s not enough,” Mack said. “Ideally each of those lessons could be three hours.”

Mack made some attempts to light a fire beneath the district’s feet.

“I also did something a little bit more crazy where I projected on the sides of some schools the words ‘this school has no art teacher. Why not?’ I did that at rush hour.” She did this with a theater light and a projector, finding the optimal spot to project from without infringing on school grounds so it wouldn’t count as trespassing or illegal activity.

According to Mack, it didn’t go over too well at first. At the third school she went too, she was asked to leave. Later, when delivering flyers to local schools about her project, her handout was rejected.

“‘I can’t accept this.’ And I’m like, ‘why?’. She said, ‘I got a pdf of that this morning and it says it is not district-approved,’” Mack said, telling the story.

Later, when Mack went in to get sample photos of one of the art literacy classes, she was asked, “This doesn’t have anything to do with the projections does it?”

But eventually, she did get the district’s attention.

“Within a week I had the director of the elementary schools, there are three directors, and one of them called me. She basically said ‘O.K., what do you want? What do you think we can do, and let’s see where we can meet.’”

Now, according to the project’s Facebook page “SK⬝art”, Salem-Keizer School District has agreed to work together with Mack. Elementary Director Lisa Harlan is helping to realize the long term goal of weekly art lessons. The funding for full time art teachers, however, is still a long ways off.

“Why not art teachers?” reads the post. “We have to fix our state funding system first, so rehiring art teachers remains a very long term goal.”

The post was even shared by the district itself.

“Art has been important to me,” said Hope Ferns, Chemeketa art student. “Especially going through really hard times in my life… Art helps me express.” But Ferns went to three different Salem-Keizer elementary schools growing up, none of which had an art teacher. “I think that I would have benefited personally if art was introduced earlier.”

For many like Mack, art education is important enough to stand up for. “If we teach art from kindergarten, our community will be more creative. It’s that simple.” Mack said.

“It’s not that education is killing our creativity, it’s that it is not maintaining it.”

With the district agreeing to collaborate, the short-term goal of getting art into elementary school classrooms has been reached. The long-term goal of making art a permanent, stable piece of early education in Salem still has a long way to go.

“We were all once creative geniuses,” Mack said, concluding her TEDxSalem talk. “And we can all be them again.”

Laura Mack’s TEDxSalem talk “Art education matters, so what’s the problem?” can be found on TEDx Talks’ YouTube channel. For more information on the continuing SK•art project, visit @Skartnow on Facebook.

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