MICHIGAN CITY — For the first time, this fall select second and third graders in Michigan City Area Schools are benefitting from an exciting educational opportunity, Literacy Through the Arts.

Lubeznik Center for the Arts (LCA) launched the program, designed to improve learning outcomes for at-risk students, through the afterschool programs of MCAS Safe Harbor and Boys & Girls Club of Michigan City.

A grant from the Michigan City Community Development Corporation and contributions from the Unity Foundation of La Porte County made the 12-week program, which began on Sept. 12, possible. About 10-12 students are in each class at seven MCAS elementary schools.

"Selecting second- and third-graders for the initial launch was the logical choice," said Janet Bloch, LCA's Education Director, "as fundamental literacy skills are being honed at this level. The program will allow us to provide a stronger start to a child's academic experience and track their success as they move through grade school."

LCA is piloting the program with the assistance of Literacy Specialist Abagael Schmidt, MA. Schmidt is a second-grade teacher at St. Paul's Lutheran School, president of the Dunes Art Foundation and holds her master's degree in elementary education. In addition to Bloch and Schmidt, there are five additional teachers contracted by LCA for the program.

"This curriculum is written to use visual arts as a tool to enhance literacy comprehension," Schmidt explained. "Being able to comprehend what you're reading is making self-to-text and text-to-world connections."

Schmidt is enthusiastic about Michigan City's recent shift and commitment to position itself as an arts center for the region.

"It's exciting to live in Michigan City again," Schmidt says. "The city is fast becoming an arts Mecca with Artspace, a growing number of galleries, the Uptown Arts District and, of course, the LCA. Our students deserve to be a part of that."

Literacy Through the Arts uses the award-winning children's book, "A Splash of Red, The Life and Art of Horace Pippin." The colorfully illustrated book details the life of a self-taught artist who overcame poverty, racism, disability and war to become an American master.

Each student develops "a portfolio that is the life and art of themselves," continued Schmidt. "By creating something themselves, they are able to make that text-to-self connection."

Each portfolio section coincides with one from the book. One includes a map of all the states the child has lived in. Another incorporates the book's quote: "Pictures just come to my mind ... and I tell my heart to go ahead" with a collage background that best describes the student's life. The kids will also create drawings in charcoal, one of Pippen's first mediums, for one of their sections. Another page incorporates a layered strip drawing detailing the student's chores and responsibilities.

From reading the book, the students have learned that Pippin was shot in the shoulder during his World War I service and, consequently, faced limited use of this dominant right arm. Even so, he learned to paint again by moving his hand with his other arm. To help them emphasize with Pippin's disability and remember the story better as well, the students' own dominant arms will be tied to their side as they try to draw.

This detail of Pippin's life has already left an impression on Third-Grader Madison Wood as she participated in the program at Knapp Elementary School.

"I like to draw about Horace Pippen," she shared. "I learned that if you get shot in the arm like Horace Pippen did all you need to do is hold your arm with your other arm."

Second-grader Jennifer Serrano proudly commented, "I learned how to make stars."

"Every lesson comes back to our essential question," Schmidt said. "How is art connected to everyday life and culture? Through this program, we hope to help students learn how they fit into the world and how art fits into their lives."

She emphasized that Literacy Through the Arts introduces the students to a wide variety of mediums, not just drawing, throughout the curriculum. This includes watercolor and oil-based painting, tearing and pasting, folding for special awareness and more.

In addition, the program builds the second and third-graders' vocabulary as they learn the meaning of such words as gallery, culture, medium, visual and portfolio.

Information provide by LCA pointed out how studies show a clear correlation between art and other academic achievement.

"A report by Americans for the Arts states that children who participate regularly in the arts are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, to participate in a math and science fair or to win an award for writing an essay or poem than children who do not participate," it cited. "Another study conducted at the University of Kansas revealed that students in elementary schools with superior music education programs scored around 22 percent higher in English and 20 percent higher in math scores on standardized tests. These and other studies show that when schools lose funding for the arts, they lose a whole lot more than cute pictures to adorn the refrigerator."

"We wish we could do more," says Bloch. "So many people are unaware that exposing young children to the arts can impact cognitive, social and motor development. They're unaware that the sensory and exploratory aspects of dance, music, painting, and singing can either stimulate or calm — essential in achieving the proper mindset for learning."

Bloch said that, depending on funding, LCA hopes to offer the program in the future to fourth, fifth and sixth graders.

Literacy Through the Arts is one of many ways that that the LCA has long-supported arts education to local schools that have suffered financial cuts. They provide 700 after-school students with visual, musical and performance art instruction three times per week. One hundred and twenty students receive onsite arts programming, 400 summer campers get visual, musical and performance instruction. In addition, the LCA is the identified arts provider for area homeschoolers.

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