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Arts...Where art thou?

Candy Rich and Kenzie Williams, right, pictured during a field trip to Wadena, to view the mural art that is scattered throughout town.1 / 3
Part of a music-theme mural that student artists created.2 / 3
Ana Lopez weaving on a loom. Students created wool felt for one of the Perham school art projects.3 / 3

The budget axe fell on the arts last year in the Perham-Dent schools.

Funding cutbacks didn't kill visual arts programs entirely--but drove arts programs underground and undercover.

From a full time staff of two teachers last year, the 2008-09 school year has operated with only one, half-time teacher. Fine arts programming is still functioning--if not flourishing.

"One of the things that is upsetting is that arts were targeted to go first," said Laura Moe, a Perham art teacher for 16 years. "There are students who are very strongly drawn to the visual arts, but now they have very limited access to resources and opportunities."

Last spring, during a series of budget cutting meetings, Moe lobbied on behalf of the visual arts.

There have been more than $1 million in Perham school cuts over the past two years. Spring 2008 cuts also led to the merging of band and orchestra, under one instructor.

Moe's plea worked for the visual arts. There is at least a part-time and after-school art program--though it doesn't meet basic state and national standards for art education, in her opinion.

"When you talk about 'No Child Left Behind,' you're leaving many children behind when you get rid of the arts," said Moe.

"Our students are not receiving the art education that they need and deserve, despite the best efforts of a very dedicated art teacher who is going above and beyond the call of duty," commented Perham School Superintendent Tamara Uselman.

As it stands there is one half-time art teacher for more than 500 students and no art teacher for the thousand or so students in grades K-8. At one time, the district had an art teacher in each building.

"It is a very sad loss and our students are less well-educated in the arts than are students in other schools who have an art instructor," said Uselman.

The arts still exist in Perham, but you need to be observant to find teacher Laura Moe and her artistic underlings. With a half-time schedule, squeezed between all the other classes, the fine arts are happening at peculiar times, and in unexpected places:

---During lunch break and at recess, Prairie Wind Middle School students have been learning watercolor, drawing, photography, glass beading and other techniques. The problem: there is no continuous, sustained instruction for the middle school students, noted Uselman.

---Young publishers are putting together an elementary yearbook--on a tightly rationed 15 minutes a day, during snack break. They have a full half-hour, but only every other Monday. Though time is limited, these kids are learning computer graphics skills, digital photography, and creative writing.

---There is very little traditional classroom art activity in the elementary school, unless Moe happens to be substituting a particular day, when she will bring in an art project.

---The after school art club, appropriately named the "Undercover Artists Club," is about all that's left in high school arts offerings. The club, which was very strong in recent years with up to 25 members, has dwindled to ten or so--largely because there isn't the classroom continuity that builds Art Club interest. Like the elementary and middle school programs, the schedule is sparse, and meetings are rarely at an established time.

Despite the quirky scheduling, the arts are happening. The high school group created a website. Middle school and high school students are working on a greeting card project--all featuring student-created art--that will be sold as a fundraiser. Jewelry is also being created, which will be sold.

"Almost every department at the school is creating products for fundraising...they're actively raising money to save programs," said Moe. For example, she added, Carl Aakre, FFA director and vocational-agriculture teacher, is making garden arbors.

Moe's half-time art position will continue another year

Despite the dismal financial picture for Minnesota public schools, Moe is pleased that there is an outlet remaining students interested in the visual arts.

"I really commend the superintendent (Tamara Uselman) and the board for keeping at least some visual arts in the school," said Moe. "Tamara worked very hard to find money for some kind of an arts program."

Cut from full to half-time, Moe lost all her benefits--with the exception of medical. Her position is funded almost entirely by the school district.

Moe's position will continue for another year, but after that, the future is uncertain. Art teachers are being cut everywhere, and the few jobs that are available are going to art teachers right out of college--because school boards are hiring entry-level teachers in order to save money, said Moe.

Administrators finding creative ways to scrounge money for arts

Superintendent Uselman played a major role in securing outside grant money from a multi-school-district collaborative. This helped provide artist in residence offerings, which this year included presentations and hands-on creativity with Korean artist Bom Kim; and also John Pierce, a professional California artist with Verndale roots.

The grant money, which is aimed at multi-cultural experiences, will also help fund a trip to the International Festival in Pelican Rapids this summer.

"We are trying to build some common experiences with Pelican students," said Moe. Pelican Rapids, with the workforce at the turkey processing plant, is a highly diverse community, ethnically.

Money was also scrounged for a field trip to the Walker Art Center, coming up May 2. There are also plans for an art studio-gallery tour of the area.

But these part-time visual arts efforts may be a moot point, if the cuts continue.

"To contemplate further cuts to art education for our children is simply ugly....but I may have no choice," said Uselman. "Art is basic, as basic as math and English and science and social studies, yet it is too often the area where reductions are made because there are no other good choices and art has fewer graduation requirements."

Here, in a nutshell, is the current status of arts at the Perham schools:

---Visual art has been reduced from three teachers to one half-time teacher.

---Band has been reduced from one full time teacher to a meld of band and orchestra.

---Individual music lesson time is gone.

---Speech-theater has been reduced in time as well.

Long range future of the arts in public schools?

Though the future looks bleak, there are lobbying efforts happening across the state.

April 13 was "Visual Arts Advocacy Day," promoted by artists and art teachers. The goal was to generate at least 1,000 emails to legislators, highlighting the importance of the arts to Minnesota.

The message was that the arts are important to Minnesota, and the group asked legislators to "minimize cuts to arts funding" and to "dedicate at least 50 percent of the Amendment's Arts and Culture Fund to the existing Minnesota State Arts Board and Regional Arts Council system." Passage of these initiatives could double or triple resources for the arts in Minnesota and increase access to the arts for all Minnesotans, contends the arts advocacy group.

"It's going to be a fight for the visual arts, and arts and general," predicted Moe for the future.

"I am deeply afraid that the state is going to pull funding from cash-starved schools. The latest talk is of that very thing happening. If our schools lose additional monies, art will not be the only program cut," said Uselman, ominously.

"It's almost like we're going back to the past where the core teachers do everything," said Moe, recalling the elementary classrooms of old, where the teacher taught reading, writing, arithmetic--and music, art and even phy ed.

The day may come, said Moe, when there will no longer be art teachers.

"To cut (arts) completely out of a child's life is criminal because those children will enter a world where creative skills and understanding of others are necessary if we want a peaceful and progressive world," said Uselman, lamenting the prospect of arts vanishing from the public schools. "Kids need art and society needs well-educated students."