Carson City school changes culture through art

Second-grader Daniella Saenz-Cabuto, 7, draws during an art lesson at Empire Elementary School on Friday.

Second-grader Daniella Saenz-Cabuto, 7, draws during an art lesson at Empire Elementary School on Friday.

As Julian Jordan, 8, followed the instructions to draw the face of George Washington Carver in his second-grade class at Empire Elementary School, he recited what he learned about the slave turned inventor.

“He was a very helpful man,” Jordan explained. “He invented over 300 peanut products. He made detergent out of peanuts. He made shaving cream. He even made punch out of peanuts.”

Teacher Amythest Holt said she typically incorporates an art project on Fridays to coordinate with what the students learned in history or social studies during the week.

“They don’t get an art class, and I think art is so important,” Holt said. “It helps tie into whatever skill or concept we’re working on. It sums up our lesson. And it’s a fun Friday thing.”

Holt’s artistic approach matches the philosophy of principal Susan Squires, who took over as head of the school this year.

Squires knew the school — which has a population of 65 percent of students who are learning English as a second language and 100 percent who qualify for free breakfast and lunch — would need special care.

Her first objective, she said, was to raise reading proficiency.

“We changed our homework policy,” she explained. “We give no homework at all. They take a book home, and all they have to do is read. Even if it’s math, they have to know how to read.”

But she knew it would take more than handing out assignments.

“The umbrella I live under is everything we do has to be good for kids,” Squires said. “So we do that. We walk around and evaluate everything.”

Most noticeable, she said, were the bare walls.

“It was such a stark school,” she said. “We started by changing the environment.”

Vice principal Michelle Paul, an artist herself, shared her skills in the classrooms. Student work, as well as her own, went up on the walls.

While art has been removed from the curriculum in the school district, Squires gave her teachers permission to teach it twice a week.

Karen Herrera-Tovar, 8, shared her pro tip.

“Don’t press so hard,” she cautioned. “If you make a mistake, you want to erase and not see the line.”

Teachers and staff volunteered their time over the Christmas break to decorate hallways and ceilings according to different themes, including Star Wars, the moon landing and astronauts.

More than improving the aesthetics of the building, Squires said the culture is changing.

“We hope we have provided them a place they want to come,” Squires said. “A place they are excited to come to every day.”

Mark Salinas, Carson City’s arts and culture coordinator, said he sees opportunities to show-case student artwork in the future.

“Empire Elementary School’s immersion into the arts connects imagination and education for hundreds of youth in Carson City,” he said. “I encourage more schools and youth to join the effort to enrich the city’s culture.”


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