Nearly everyone involved with education and the arts agrees that putting artists together with schoolchildren, as early as possible, is a great idea.
Doing so exposes kids to a wider world of culture at an early age, and fosters creativity and imagination in young minds.
Difficulties may arise, however, when many artists live for their art, and in an expensive city like Key West, they can't always afford to donate chunks of their time to the schools - or as much as they'd like to, anyway.
Enter the Artists in Schools grant.
This decade-old program, administered by the Florida Keys Council of the Arts, allows artists working in a variety of media to bring their talents directly to students in their schools - and still get paid for their services.
"The mission of the Arts Council is to support artists," said Florida Keys Council of the Arts Executive Director Liz Young. "And we enjoy a great relationship with Monroe County schools. Artists in Schools touches on all genres, such as literary, performing and visual arts. The teachers really love having the program, and we love supporting the artists, and making connections with people."
It seems like a match made in heaven, both for the school kids and their teachers, and the artists who apply for, and receive, Artists in Schools grants.
Quilting at Gerald Adams
Key West quilter Margo Ellis is in a somewhat uncommon position, as far as the AIS program goes, in that she earns her living teaching K-8 students full-time at Gerald Adams Elementary School. For 16 years, Ellis has toiled at the Stock Island school, occasionally paying for her own art supplies, as needed, in order to bring a little creative sunshine into her students' lives.
"It's a reward for good behavior," Ellis said.
For the past five years, however, Ellis has received a little help, in the form of $1,000 annual grants from AIS.
With this extra money, she's been able to purchase another sewing machine, and buy the supplies that have enabled her to get her kids working on seasonal projects, such as Halloween costumes, Santa hats, and Mothers' Day pillows.
She was even able to enter some of her students' creations in a "School blocks"-themed contest at the National QuiltMuseum, in Paducah, Ky.
Gerald Adams didn't win, but the pupils' quilt squares, funded with AIS grant-purchased material, were displayed at the museum after the contest, a real thrill for the kids.
"For them, it's a chance to work with multiple modalities," Ellis said. "Many of these kids have never made anything except with paper, and with this program, instead of looking at a book, they get to work with their hands, and create something that lasts. I've had past students tell me, 'I still have that pillow we made three years ago; it's still on my mom's bed.' It becomes something permanent in their lives that they can enjoy."
Documentary film in Islamorada
At the other end of the county, history enthusiast Ron Levy has found in an AIS grant a means to fulfill his dream of documenting the history of Islamorada.
A board member of the non-profit Islamorada Community Entertainment, Levy applied for and received an AIS grant for $1,000, to help pay for the services of New York City filmmakers Nancy and David Novack.
Last November, the couple was flown to the Keys to participate in an intense, two-day workshop with students from Coral Shores High School, video teacher Michele Thiery and history teacher Melissa Welch. Islamorada Community Entertainment picked up the balance of the tab for the couple's trip to the Keys.
"It was an ambitious undertaking," Levy said of the workshop. "It got rave reviews from Mrs. Thiery, and left her students with the skills necessary to finish the documentary. It's going to be done in chapters. Right now the kids are still finishing the editing and the soundtrack."
Levy expects the finished product to debut in the auditorium of CSHS, and then, hopefully, be shown at venues up and down the island chain.
In addition to the skills of researching, interviewing, filming and editing, which the students picked up from the workshop, Nancy and David Novack said the students learned a few intangibles, as well, such as "working together in cooperative teams; a deeper understanding of possible career trajectories in history, archive sciences, or film/video production; intergenerational communication, (especially with regard to meeting and interviewing several octogenarians from the Islamorada community); a deeper understanding of students' own connectedness to their community and geography, through the prism of historical continuity; and the benefits of giving back to the community with art."
Levy, whose motivation for the project was "memorializing the history of this very special area, before it's all lost, as people from the founding families pass on," is bullish on AIS.
"It's a great program," Levy said. "It gives kids in our community a chance to experience things they wouldn't usually."
Additional participants in the AIS program include Robin Kaplan, who teaches exceptional music students at Sigsbee Charter School, and Lucy Carleton, who is currently teaching dancing to fourth- and fifth-graders, at Glynn Archer Elementary School.
Carleton's "Dancing Classrooms" culminating demonstration takes place at 1:30 p.m. Friday at the school.
Another dance-related project is new this year.
Kyla Piscopink's Key West Contemporary Dance Co. has won a $500 grant to bring "Dance Me a Story" to Cameron Murray's Key West High School English class this spring, where the troupe will choreograph and perform movements inspired by the literary works the pupils are studying.
"The concept of 'Dance Me a Story' is to begin an ongoing integration of dance into the literature and arts program at the high school," a KWCDC email blast states. "'Dance Me A Story' strives to help students broaden their communication and performance skills, inspire creativity through movement, and ultimately boost self-confidence."
Another grant recipient, the Key West Fringe Theater, recently brought live performances of Shakespeare to several Middle Keys schools, Young said.
"[Fringe] really brought Shakespeare to life," Young said. "Instead of just having the kids read his plays, we had actors come in and perform scenes. It was a wonderful experience for them."
Young stressed that while the visiting artists are the ones receiving the grant money, the school teachers are integral to the program.
"It's a collaboration between the teaching artist and the classroom teachers, so that the students understand that the art is the vehicle being used to enhance the learning," she said. "You never know when you're going to touch a kid . . . When a child hears a trumpet for the first time, or sees Shakespeare done aloud, who knows where it will lead?"
For more information on the Artists in Schools grant, visit http://www.keysarts.com/grants_more/AIS-grant.html