What if, with a single school art program, you could provide creative opportunities for kids, offer professional development for teachers, meet state standards and foster friendship between disparate communities?
That's exactly what Cultural Kaleidoscope was created to do. Now in its 16th year, the program of the Palo Alto Art Center Foundation began with a simple vision: using visual art to foster unity. Today, the art program operates in 20 K-5 classrooms: half of them in largely upper-middle-class Palo Alto Unified schools, and half in the Ravenswood City School District, where 80 percent of families are considered low income and nearly 70 percent of students are English-language learners.
In the current school year, Cultural Kaleidoscope will serve 468 students. Through in-school workshops, field trips, collaboration days and a culminating public art exhibition, students learn to see themselves as creators and to share that experience with children from neighborhoods and families different from their own.
It's the latter factor that distinguishes the program from so many others.
"Cultural Kaleidoscope came out of a deep desire to connect the dramatically different communities of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto," explained Palo Alto Art Center Director Karen Kienzle, who credited Palo Alto arts education advocate Carolyn Tucher with the initial vision that launched the project.
This year, Cultural Kaleidoscope is operating at Escondido, Fairmeadow, Herbert Hoover, Lucille Nixon, Ohlone and Palo Verde schools in Palo Alto Unified, and at Belle Haven, Cesar Chavez/Green Oaks, Los Robles and Willow Oaks in Ravenswood City. Two of the in-class programs at Escondido and Los Robles schools will be led in Spanish.
In preparation for the 10-session program, teaching artists meet with classroom instructors to develop workshops that complement the core curriculum and incorporate the artists' areas of expertise. Artists then bring these projects into the classroom and take students out into the community to engage with art in new ways. Students participate in three collaboration days where they meet with their "buddies" from the other school district. The final collaboration day this year will be in May, when works by all participating students will be displayed at the Palo Alto Art Center in a month-long public exhibition, and students will come with their buddies for a docent-led tour.
"When the kids see their artwork professionally installed in a museum context, they leave saying, 'Wow, we're real artists,'" Kienzle said.
The teaching artists selected for Cultural Kaleidoscope specialize in a variety of media, including photography, printmaking, illustration and installation art. Some are new to the program this year, while others have participated for more than a decade. Among the longtime Cultural Kaleidoscope teaching artists is Claude Ferguson, a multidisciplinary artist who has been involved in arts education with youth and teens since the mid-1980s. One of Ferguson's signature projects involves working with students to create masks inspired by art from the Dogon tribe of Mali.
"Everyone raves about his work in the classrooms," Kienzle said. "He teaches kids about symmetry, and then he talks about the masks' ceremonial use he brings in drums, and the kids get to use masks in a performative context."
Other teaching artists this year will focus on color and pattern in South American art and Mexican art traditions including Oaxacan animal sculptures and amate bark painting.
Classroom teachers, as well as teaching artists, are paid for their participation in Cultural Kaleidoscope. The program has an annual operating budget of about $104,000. Part of this year's budget was provided through a $5,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund.
"It costs us about ($5,000) to $6,000 to do Cultural Kaleidoscope in one classroom," explained Kienzle, adding that the program emphasizes not just student learning but the training of classroom instructors by teaching artists. "Our goal is to instill in classroom teachers an appreciation of what art can do, so that they can continue to implement art in the classroom."
Last year, the art center conducted an extensive evaluation of the program, focusing on skills known as the four "Cs": critical thinking, co-communication, collaboration and creativity. As outlined by the U.S. Department of Education's Partnership for 21st Century Skills, these qualities are thought to be determining factors in a child's preparation for citizenship and professional leadership.
According to the art center's study, Cultural Kaleidoscope had a demonstrable impact on participants, particularly those in the Ravenswood City schools, where students averaged an increase of 17 percent in communication and creativity skills, Kienzle said.
"Our dream is to do a longitudinal study to see how the program has impacted students long term," she said.
Donations to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund can be made at the Holiday Fund website.