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By Renee Batti
Almanac Staff Writer
When Judy Sleeth walked into a Laurel School kindergarten classroom on a recent morning, greeted by the sight of kids in a semicircle hanging on every word of a young mother leading an art session, it was a homecoming of sorts.
Thirty years ago, it was Ms. Sleeth in front of a class of kindergartners, including her daughter, on that same Atherton campus -- a volunteer parent trying to fill the gap left when, because of budget cuts, arts education was drastically reduced in the Menlo Park City School District.
At that time, Ms. Sleeth had to rely mostly on her own resources to create a classroom art program, a task made a bit easier by her background as a teacher with a degree in curriculum writing.
Little did she know at the time that her daughter's classroom would turn into an incubator. As she continued offering art programs at Laurel, then Encinal schools, and in the ensuing years, the Atherton mother of three went on to develop an eight-grade-level curriculum.
Today, Ms. Sleeth's Art in Action program is used in classrooms in some 25 states and four other countries.
Because it is designed to educate teacher as well as child, Art in Action can, and usually is, taught by volunteers, keeping its costs to schools low -- about $14 annually per student, according to the AIA website. "I wrote this program for parents who don't necessarily have any background in art," Ms. Sleeth says.
In addition to its use in all 22 of Laurel School's classrooms, AIA is also teaching kids about art at Encinal, Nativity, St. Raymond's, Phillips Brooks, Willow Oaks, and Synapse schools, as well as the Boys & Girls Club, in Menlo Park. It's also used in numerous other classrooms in the county.
Next month, Art in Action will receive the Peninsula Arts Council's Diamond Award -- dubbed San Mateo County's "Arts Hall of Fame" award and presented annually to individuals and organizations for artistic achievement.
The program was nominated by Cathy Tokic, the parent volunteer coordinator at Laurel School, and parent volunteer Ruth Housenbold, who wrote in their letter of recommendation: "We believe (Art in Action) truly enhances the students' educational experience beyond art. The program embodies many of the important 21st century learning concepts such as critical thinking, creativity, and active discovery.
"Children love the program. ... Students cheer when they see the parent volunteers enter the classroom and shower them with smiles and hugs."
The push to save classroom arts programs in the face of school budget cuts is grounded on the principle that art instruction is critical to developing the whole child. Numerous studies indicate that education in the arts bolsters critical thinking skills and fosters brain development.
"Children learn to think critically" when taught to look carefully at and create art, Ms. Sleeth says. Art study "teaches kids to read visual cues and think about them."
In her AIA curriculum, "the discussion part of the lesson emphasizes critical thinking in the same way that an interpretive discussion would in a literature or history class," she explains, "but the difference is that the clues, or information, is all there, easy to see, and not dependent on reading skills.
"So even before the kids can read, they can make and support hypotheses, think about different possibilities, and notice a much deeper level of detail and design."
Question and answer
The children in Maribeth Andolina's kindergarten class were absorbed in the mysteries of a Persian art reproduction when Ms. Sleeth came visiting. The famous work depicted a polo match, with men in turbans and tall hats on horseback.
"Are there teams?" asks parent volunteer Amy Paye Venuto. "Yes," was the consensus. "What's our clue that there are teams?" she responds. When one child makes a thoughtful guess, Ms. Venuto says, "OK, I can see that. What's another clue?"
As the questions and answers flowed, the children were encouraged to look closely and articulate their observations. "Do you think the horses are standing still or moving?" Ms. Venuto asks. "Moving," several children respond. "Why do you think they're moving -- what are the clues?" The children then describe the horses' legs -- not vertical on the ground but diagonal, or in the air.
Ms. Tokic, the volunteer coordinator at Laurel, says that more than 80 parents signed up to help out in the classroom on Art in Action days, which occur once every three weeks in each classroom. "Many of our parents have full-time jobs," she notes.
Training for volunteers is provided by AIA on campus for the first year, then at the organization's offices in Menlo Park in subsequent years. In addition to print and online curricular materials, the program fee includes art supplies for the 12 lessons.
Funds for the Laurel program come from private sources -- individual donations and a large contribution from the Atherton Arts Committee, Ms. Tokic says.
Charged up by art
Parent and teacher comments -- and the charged classroom environment during the recent kindergarten art lesson -- indicate Art in Action is popular with kids.
"They just love it," says Ms. Andolina, the kindergarten teacher. Ms. Sleeth recalls being told by a parent that her child insisted on coming to school with a fever because it was Art in Action day.
Ms. Tokic says she's observed remarkable artwork produced by children who might not excel, or even do well, in the so-called basics. The AIA program is important in that it keeps them engaged and learning in ways that other subject material might not allow for.
Laurel School Principal Linda Creighton notes the importance of arts education for all children, including those for whom "a traditional school environment is not the most effective way to learn."
"The magical thing about observing an art lesson is that I am always surprised with the success that all students find when placed in (a) supportive and free learning environment," she writes in an email. Unlike in a rote math class, "it's not the same child over and over who excels. It continues to amaze me how different students' work shines depending on the art lesson."
Former student Krista Skehan, who attended Laurel in the 1980s and early 1990s, says Art in Action "is a positive influence in every child's life."
"Art's fun -- there's no wrong answer," she says, noting that it's that aspect of art that encourages creative thinking and seeing.
Ms. Skehan, who until recently served on the Art in Action board, owns a graphics and web design business, and says an early love of art might have led her to work in the arts even without her classroom exposure.
"Some people are good at math and science, some are good at art. What Art in Action did for me was it gave me the avenue to grow that interest (in art) at a very early age." The level of instruction was higher than most students get, she says, adding "I didn't just draw a turkey hand for Thanksgiving."
Courtney Charney, who had AIA instruction as a Phillips Brooks student in the mid-1980s and beyond, says art education, and specifically Art in Action, "fostered a love of learning. So many of my happiest moments came from the times I spent experimenting with chalk, cutting up construction paper, and gluing feathers on paper plates."
Now a local real estate agent, Ms. Charney minored in art history at Stanford, and during her senior year, taught Art in Action at a school in East Palo Alto. "I experienced first-hand the way that art education can captivate students and help them discover talents in themselves," she says.
"Judy Sleeth's contributions to our greater community cannot be measured. Her creativity and love of teaching and learning spread like watercolor on paper to any Art in Action student."
Art in Action fundraisers
Ateliers d'Artistes, the annual fundraiser for Art in Action, is set for March 5 at the Sharon Heights Golf and Country Club in Menlo Park. It will include a luncheon, silent auction, and student art demonstrations.
Go to Art in Action and click on the Calendar link to learn more and to purchase tickets.
Also in March, Menlo Park artist Mitchell Johnson will exhibit recent paintings at Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park. Some of the proceeds from sales will go to Art in Action, he said.