'Head Start with Art' expands its horizons

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Confidence. Creativity. Connection.

Those are just some of the side effects of the "Head Start with Art" curriculum developed through the Clark Art Institute and Berkshire County Head Start. Now entering its fifth year, the program pairs Head Start teachers with museum educator and staff partners to help build relationships with local children and introduce to them new ideas and skills.

Last year the Clark received a $24,847 Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to strengthen the museum's own program and to help expand the program to be replicated in other regions.

On Thursday, some two dozen community educators and museum program coordinators from areas like Springfield; Albany, N.Y., and Bennington, Vt., attended a training together at the Williamstown art institute to learn about growing their own Head Start with Art initiatives. Through the grant, interested school-museum partnerships are eligible to receive individual consulting, as well as materials, to support getting a program off the ground.

Representatives from the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute are now also collaborating with the program; that institute provides training and technical assistance to Head Start and Early Head Start programs for all of New England.

"This is a win-win-win for everybody, and it expands what we may be as an institute for audiences and educators," said Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer, who heads education initiatives for the Clark. "I think as museums, we're trying to not just be object focused, but to become more audience and exploration focused."

The Head Start With Art program can be implemented in a few ways. The Berkshire County Head Start based at the Johnson School in North Adams has become the model partnership for the Head Start with Art program; students and staff have been visiting the Clark museum since the program was piloted. Each participating classroom receives visits from museum docents, then makes four trips to the Clark to view and discuss art, meet staff, and do art activities on site.

Alternatively, Tulgan Ostheimer said, staff can just visit the schools and do the activities their.

As part of Thursday's training, a team from the Johnson School Head Start site presented their experiences and suggestions to the prospective partners.

"It's been absolutely wonderful," said Dawn Blondin, a family advocate for the Johnson School Head Start.

"I enjoy coming here every time. I learn something new every time. And these kids just love them here," she said, referring to the Clark staff.

She and her colleagues — Director of Child Care Tammy LaValley, assistant teacher Leslie Crockwell, and teacher Katie Superneau — detailed some of the things they've learned with their students.

'It's so amazing to see the interactions with the kids, their families and the staff at the Clark," said Superneau. "I love how they come to the classrooms and talk to the children and talk about the rules at the museum and what they're going to do there."

Preparation for a museum visit is critical, as it may be a new experience, not only to the children, but also to their families. Due to the children's ages, instructions and references have been compiled into a young child-friendly view book, which explains what they'll see, who they will meet and what they will do at the Clark.

"Even the children who have been before love these books. They read them to each other and memorize the words and are showing the younger ones," Crockwell said.

The children, mostly between the ages of 3 and 6 years old, learn words like "frame" and "label," "painting" and "sculpture," and meet everyone from curators to security guards.

"I think teachers are so stressed these days with meeting the state standards, I think this puts the focus of education back on the human experience, that they're in the role of making people, not just teaching subjects," Tulgan Ostheimer said.

"They really do learn and take it home with them," LaValley said, noting how the children learn to talk about their own art using some of the above terms.

Crockwell said that when parents begin to see how comfortable their children become with the Clark, the more comfortable, in turn, the parents become with the idea of taking their young children to a fine arts museum.

"Some parents feel it's an intimidating place to bring a child that young, but this shows them that they can bring a 3-year-old and that child will be fine. In turn, that's good for everyone's self-esteem," Crockwell said.

To help reinforce families' relationships with the museum, the school-museum partners work together to provide things like free museum passes for families and transportation to events like the end-of-session reception for children and families. Tulgan Ostheimer said she hopes the museum and school can work together to find a way to provide additional transportation services for general visits, as they've learned that this can be a barrier for some families.

"Our goal when [the families] come here is to make them feel welcome and show them that we value their children," said Peter Mehlin. He and his fellow docents, Lee Mullins, Fran Lapidus and Marcy Plumb all take great pride in greeting every teacher, student and family member with warm wisdom and infectious enthusiasm, as the group experienced firsthand during their training.

Deana Mallory, director of public programs for the Bennington Museum in Vermont said she chose to attend the training in order to understand how a museum might be able to fill the need of providing enrichment to families who may not be able to access such programs otherwise. "In our local community we have a lot of low-income families and we've got a lot of need," she said. "But we still want them to know that yes, the museum is theirs, and yes, it's a place they can come to, too."

Springfield Museums Family Engagement Coordinator Jenny Powers said making personal connections at a museum "can be really powerful." She also noted how museums, through staff in roles like hers, can help empower parents through such activities to talk about art with their kids "even if they don't have an art background."

The Head Start with Art training partners:

Bennington County Head Start / Bennington Art Museum

Worcester Communication Action Council / Worcester Art Museum

Greater Lawrence Community Action Council / Addison Gallery

Montachusetts Opportunity Council / Fitchburg Art Museum

Community Action of Franklin, Hampshire, and North Quabbin Regions / Springfield Art Museum

Holyoke Chicopee Springfield HeadStart / Wistariahurst Museum

ABCD Head Start Boston / Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

Warren County Head Start / The Hyde Collection

Albany Community Action / Early Learning Center / Albany Institute of History and Art

Berkshire County Head Start / Berkshire Museum

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