$2.48 million grant expands arts program to new Lewiston elementary school

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PORTLAND — A Portland-based program that provides hands-on art learning to students is expanding next year to Lewiston.

The program will be offered at the new Connors Elementary School.

During a Tuesday morning news conference, Beth Wilbur Van Mierlo, executive director of the nonprofit Side x Side, announced a four-year, $2.48 million federal grant that will allow her program to continue in Portland schools and expand into Lewiston.

“We were one of 92 applicants that applied for the Assistance for Arts Education Development and Dissemination grant program,” and only 22 awards were made.

“Maine is yet again on the map,” she said. “This is a continuation of the first grant we got four years ago.”

To get continued U.S. Department of Education funding, the Side x Side program had to expand. The grant will provide money for four more years to continue building the program, creating new community partnerships and deepening existing ones, Van Mierlo said.

The goal of the program is to address the needs of all students, especially those who learn best in hands-on, nontraditional ways.

In the classroom, teaching artists and University of Southern Maine student interns are partnered with classroom teachers. “They work together to identify a part of the curriculum they normally teach they can enhance through art,” which includes reading, writing, math, science and social studies, Van Mierlo said.

Local experts are invited in to talk about what they do, which enhances what  students are learning.

Van Mierlo shared an example: Reiche Elementary School second-graders studied sea creatures in reading and writing lessons. They were then partnered with a teaching artist who is a sculptor. 

In creating the art, students practice observational drawing, conduct research and study — not only by reading and writing but by talking to experts in that field. For instance, when students studied sea animals, “we brought in a marine biologist who also is a children’s book author to talk about what she does as a profession,” Van Mierlo said. A big part of the program is to introduce students to what could be in their future and how they’ll fit into the community when they become adults.

Then, “the magic happens in the classroom between the teaching artist and classroom teacher” when students create their art, Van Mierlo said.

“At the end we do a large celebration of learning, invite the public to come in,” she said. “There’s lots of parents and grandparents.”

Partnering with individuals in the community is key. “We build relationships and pull people into our schools so that this work can continue with or without funding.”

Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said his district is excited to have the program.

Lewiston schools offer art and music, but they are not able “to connect to real life as much as we’d like,” Webster said. Integrating art in regular lessons will deliver a greater relevance, he said.

“I have no doubt that through this grant we’ll have innovators who will rise up among our students who might not have without this opportunity,” he said.

Teachers at Martel and Longley elementary schools this year will provide teacher training about the Side x Side program and how to incorporate art in lessons. Next year the Side x Side program will begin at Connors, Webster said. Pupils at Martel and Longley will be moved to Connors next year.

Webster hopes what’s learned at Connors Elementary will be shared with other schools.

Portland Assistant Superintendent Jeanne Crocker said the program has been a success in that city’s schools. A challenge in education is how to best help students who aren’t traditional learners. “This is it — through arts integration,” she said.

USM President Glenn Cummings said it’s not easy to get a federal grant of this magnitude, something he witnessed when he worked in the U.S. Department of Education under the Obama administration.

Art in classrooms is important, he said. “It’s healing for students, and we have a lot of wounded students.”

Business leaders looking to hire have said to Cummings, “‘I need people who think differently, who are innovative, creative and can see opportunities,’ he said. “The story of Maine is we have technical skills, but we’re not always seeing how we can create real added value. So you want to have strong art programs. It changes student lives. It changes our lives, our state.”

A Portland art-based learning program is expanding to Lewiston’s new Connors Elementary School next year, thanks to a $2.48 million federal grant awarded to a nonprofit arts program called Side x Side. In this photo from 2015-16, Portland Reiche Elementary student Jael shows her “Moving Oceans” creation. (Submitted photo)

 A Portland art-based learning program is expanding to Lewiston’s new Connors Elementary School next year, thanks to a federal grant announced Tuesday. The $2.48 million grant was awarded to a Portland nonprofit, Side x Side, that works with artists, University of Southern Maine interns and classroom teachers to deliver integrated arts learning. (Submitted photo)

Beth Wilbur Van Mierlo holds a student-created Puffin during a news conference Tuesday when it was announced that her organization had been awarded a sizable federal grant to expand art learning to Lewiston’s new Connors Elementary School. Van Mierlo is executive director of Side x Side, a Portland nonprofit started by parents of pupils at Reiche Elementary School. (Bonnie Washuk/Sun Journal) 

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