California Arts Council

State of California

Arts Make Impact on Rural California School and Community
How a school's arts programs impact in a sparsely populated part of the state


Published: 05-21-2008

Dick Deasy, the head of the Arts Education Partnership, spoke in March at the California Arts Council's statewide arts conference on the "Imagine Nation" and the importance of arts education in the U.S. He referred to a 2005 publication Third Space: When Learning Matters, a look at ideal arts education programs throughout the U.S. The Third Space example from California was the Grizzly Hill School, and the book emphasized how the school's arts programs reached deep into the rural community. The California Arts Council wrote about Grizzly Hill and first published this story in January of 2006.

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The foothills of the Sierras in Northern California are known for their rivers, camping, and place in California history and the Gold Rush. But among arts education experts, the remote area of the San Juan Ridge in the foothills is known for another reason: Grizzly Hill School, an artistic education oasis. The small school located ninety minutes from Sacramento off Highway 49 was recently highlighted in Third Space: When Learning Matters, a book published by the Arts Education Partnership (AEP) that profiled ten schools across the nation that achieved excellence attributed to their arts programs.

The area surrounding the Grizzly Hill School, a K-8 public school with 93 students, is as remote an area as you can get in California. It's surrounded by forests and located nine miles from the nearest towns small hamlets that typically consist of a gas station and a few scattered stores. Most of the families in the community live on unpaved roads. Chances are they'll have a phone, but maybe not public-utility provided electricity, relying instead on generators, solar cells or other portable energy. The vast majority of the students qualify for a free or reduced-cost lunch, an educational benchmark indicating an "economically disadvantaged" populace, noted AEP Executive Director Richard Deasy.

But the school has something that larger schools in urban and suburban areas in California strive for: Grizzly Hill has thriving curriculum and community-integrated visual and performing arts.

"Our researchers were deeply impressed by what they saw and heard at Grizzly Hill School," said Deasy, who also was a co-author of Third Space. "It is a truly unique place."

The praise is no surprise to Twin Ridges Elementary School District Superintendent Stan Miller. "Every day at Grizzly Hill, art is infused into other content areas and these traditionally academic subjects are integrated into arts activities," he stated in a press release. "The result produces engagement and relevance, ultimately increasing achievement and a sense of connection to the school and the community." The arts that Miller speaks of range from paintings and drawings, to music and choirs, to dance performances and instruction from guests artists from around the world.

One of the reasons why Grizzly Hill was chosen to be highlighted in Third Space was because of the high number of students from economically disadvantaged families. But the proud mountain folks don't think in those terms. The San Juan Ridge folks have a very strong kinship with the land trees and rivers, mountains and earth all which play a part in the arts and other studies at the school. Deasy from the AEP said he was highly impressed by their motto of a "place-based school with a global perspective." Grizzly Hills studies incorporate the nature around them, but also outside information and influences from the guest artists from around the world. So while almost all the students from the school are Caucasian, bringing in artists from outside the area gives them an understanding of the world beyond the foothills.

Diana Pasquini, a place-based arts educator who coordinates much of the visual and performing arts curriculum at the school, emphasizes how important the arts are to her students. The school recently gained 79 points in the recent Academic Performance Index, but she believes the overall effects go beyond test scores.

"Children are empowered as citizens by the arts," she said. "They start to participate in the world around them with their artwork, having as great an impact as the adults."

Examples of the students participating in the community abound. The Western Nevada County Union noted artwork in the local post office, a main community gathering spot since many folks in the area rely on post office boxes for their mail. Pasquini described a temporary mural created by seventh graders that was photographed and turned into a postcard that's now in its third printing. And the local arts organizations get involved. The North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center recently teamed up with the school to bring Tibetan artists and dancers to the community, allowing the locals to view their art and the children to learn about a global community very different from their own.

The most touching example for Pasquini of the influence of the arts on her students came from a project that centered on a local fundraising effort for Hurricane Katrina victims. A group of local women raised $7000 in direct financial support for the hurricane victims, a tremendous amount from this sparsely populated area. They were welcomed on the Grizzly Hills campus as examples of modern heroes, and the children were asked to join in the support effort. Third and fourth-grade students created oversized cards from watercolor paintings to send to the Hurricane Katrina families cards that were later copied and printed as standard greeting cards that continue to bring in funds for charity projects.

The arts program at Grizzly Hill was initiated about a decade ago by a series of grants, including some from the Rural School and Community Trust program and a partnership with the North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center for the California Arts Council's "Mentoring Artist Program" from 2001. This initial grant funding set the foundation for the current program. Even when the funding dried up, the community and the school decided to continue the program. Pasquini, for example, was initially paid through grants, but now her salary comes directly from the school district.

Pasquini points to the Hurricane Katrina project as a form of confidence-building for youngsters, as well as a lesson in visual arts and current events. "Children that age can feel very 'disempowered' after watching the news and seeing all the destruction," she said. "The feeling of powerlessness can be very damaging. But after the [watercolor-card project], they're now empowered and fully realize how even from a distance they can make a difference in the world."

Another example of the arts' powerful influence that Pasquini noted concerned one of the non-Caucasian students at the school. A young Native American boy joined the school and was struggling. He apparently felt uncomfortable and singled out because of his background, and his confidence in his studies and with his peers wavered.

"Initially he rejected his heritage because he wanted to be just like everyone else," said Pasquini. But after a Native American guest artist worked with the classroom, the boy's confidence grew tremendously. By the end of the year his attitude had reversed, and his confidence grew so much that he joined his own family in a performance of native American dances performed for the entire school. "He became the most popular boy in the class," said Pasquini.

Third Space authors explained that the concept behind the title is that the arts create something that goes beyond a simple presentation-absorption of information in the learning process, but create a completely different and unique understanding. The description is appropriate for the experience at Grizzly Hills, and Pasquini sums up the feelings of a community about their unique school.

"The arts are essential. They aren't just a frill, they are a powerful tool. They aren't a medium of entertainment or commerce, but much much more."

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"Arts Make Impact on Rural California School" was written by Mary Beth Barber, communications director for the California Arts Council, and first published in the agency's eNewsletter on January 19, 2006. Third Space is available for purchase at www.aep-arts.org.




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