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Seven young and determined faces in Christy Jones’ elementary class sat and stared hard at the tasks set before them, eager to bring to life the creations of their still-developing minds.
A handful of adults coaxed some of them softly or helped steady tiny hands holding brushes dabbing vivid colors on the forms of small ceramic horses.
“Art is creativity. And you need creativity. You need to think out of the box,” said Ocala artist Marlene Jacobowitz about the importance of allowing children the opportunity to express themselves.
The focus in the arts as part of the learning experience is dwindling in schools, she said, and it’s something encountered even less among children with special needs.
Jacobowitz is part of a program called Vision and Strength through Art Florida (VSA) that does just that, and last week was her second in an eight-week program for the Exceptional Student Education (ESE) children at Chiefland Elementary School.
“It was offered, and we jumped at the chance,” ESE teacher Jones said shortly before the class got underway Thursday morning. It’s the first time such a program has come to one of the schools in Chiefland, she said, and the children are responding favorably.
Jones said the children in her class, ranging from 2nd to 5th graders, all have varying degrees of disabilities, though most display cognitive disabilities. Two of her students are on the autism spectrum, with one being the most severe case she’s encountered in her career.
This child in particular, she said, has trouble being able to stay seated for more than five minutes, usually. But since the VSA program began, he stays focused on what he’s doing for up to 30 minutes.
“That’s never happened before,” she said. “He’s participating by himself. That is huge.” The children in her class love Jacobowitz, she said. “The kids want her to come every day.”
Dr. Rosalind Hall, director of ESE services for Levy schools, wrote in an email last week, “There is a lot of research in the areas of arts and its effect on students with disabilities, as well as non-disabled students. With regard to the effects on students with disabilities, creative energy grows when children are given the opportunity, time, and a variety of experiences. Children with speech and/or language impairments can use art as a means of communication. The ability to display creative works is an important part of self-expression.”
She said Chiefland Elementary was chosen this year because of its diversity, the increase in students and because of the enthusiasm of the faculty. This is only the second year the county has been a part of the program, which is funded by the state through the University of South Florida.
Hall said activities such as the VSA Florida program, which is an affiliate of the national VSA program started by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, gives children confidence and helps lead to academic success.
Jones said that, indeed, Jacobowitz’ program does integrate other areas of academics, crossing over into reading, writing, math and geometry and the ability to plan.
The children started out doing paintings of horses in the style of Franz Marc, a 19th Century Expressionist painter and printmaker, who Jacobowitz describes as an artist who himself thought out of the box in terms of color use. The children also painted T-Shirts and did other drawings as a plan to help guide them in Thursday’s project, which brought their art into three dimensions with the painting of the ceramic horses. At the end of the class, Jones read them a book about the art of Marc. Later projects, all using animals as a theme, include farm animals and creatures of the sea and rainforests. At the end of the eight weeks, the students will design and create a quilt.
“I think it’s great,” said Shannon Hutson, mother of 9-year-old Zachary Hutson, one of Jones’ students. Hutson showed up to help her son with his project, mixing paint and guiding his hand.
She has a daughter who frequently engages in art projects with Zachary, she said, and he shows a lot of interest, but, she added, art is “not always something special needs kids get to participate in.”
She said she hopes officials will continue to pursue such programs in the future.
Hall said she looks forward to expanding such programs in the county. “My goal is to have all of our schools be a part of this wonderful experience.”