Full STEAM ahead

Santa Fe Public Schools’ Art Squad pilot heads into second year of coaxing out arts potential

Over the span of a year, a dozen fifth-grade students from Salazar Elementary explored new mediums in art, creating a STEAM-themed acrylic panel piece displayed this summer at the New Mexico Public Education Department’s Jerry Apodaca Education Building.

The students were members of the school’s Art Squad, part of a district-wide pilot program sparked by former art teacher Steve Heil asking: What does it look like to foster kids with art potential?

To Anna Gibson, the teacher facilitating Salazar’s art squad, the answer was “spectacular.”

“I’ll say that I probably have one of the best jobs in the world,” Gibson tells SFR. “I get to work with people being creative, being excited, being inventors, breaking rules, experimenting, exploring–they’re amazing.”

Heil’s doctoral dissertation research focusing on art talent development for underrepresented groups motivated Salazar’s pilot program. He had met with Santa Fe Public Schools Art Education Coordinator Cristina González in 2020 to highlight what he learned.

“Folks of various groups don’t get the opportunities they need to contribute as artists in our society, whereas other groups do get those opportunities,” Heil says, noting González and Salazar Elementary Principal Alyssa Maestas were “instrumental” to the creation of Salazar’s program.

“I started helping them devise ways to provide opportunities that weren’t available, especially to Latine students and economically disadvantaged schools,” Heil says.

The district rolled out the program last year with seven teachers to provide advanced artistic instruction. Gibson, who this year marks her 10th year at Salazar, follows the Teaching for Artistic Behavior model. The model, she says “is really about self-choice; the child is the artist, and the teacher is the facilitator.”

Gibson taught a two-hour art squad class every Friday during the last school year. Students, she says, took inspiration to create a sculpture made of interlocking panels from a vintage set of Charles Eames’ House of Cards Gibson had in the studio.

“She [Gibson] is an amazing teacher who just really devotes herself to her students’ growth. She’s inspiring,” Heil says.

To create the sculpture, the students collaborated with Aoife Runyan, the school’s digital learning coach, to learn how to laser engrave and use a laser cutter in the school’s STEAM lab (for science, technology, engineering, arts and math), and they decided to make the piece itself STEAM-themed. Once a month, the art squad met in the lab to work on the sculpture.

Some of Gibson’s students immersed themselves further into their passion, attending the school’s standard art class and joining the after-school art club. Gibson says these students spent more than six hours per week getting art instruction and working in the studio.

“They’re just hard-working, really dedicated, creative young people,” Gibson says. “If you give them a little opportunity, it will really take it to the next level.”

Schools use three methods to identify artistic potential in students: Robert Clark’s Drawing Abilities Test (also known as the CDAT), a standardized test in drawing; “teacher observation,” geared toward students with interest in other mediums like sculpting; and self-advocacy, a method that lines up with Gibson’s teaching method. Students interested in joining can assert themselves as artists who deserve to be a part of the program.

“A kid who is not picked up in the other two, but advocates for themself, that’s a kid who really loves art and wants to work hard in their amazing assets in that community,” Gibson explains.

Self-advocacy also serves as a key to making the art squad program do what it is meant to do: fix the leaks that educators like Heil and Gibson have observed in Santa Fe’s artist pipeline.

“Self-identifying helps lead to their self-concept. They’re self-identifying as artists and creative people,” Gibson elaborates. “And then we really start fostering, building those skills and they work to the next level with a pretty big toolbox.”

When Gibson showed the result of her students’ work to Heil in the spring, Heil suggested putting the project on display at PED’s lobby. On June 21, the art squad’s sculpture debuted at the Jerry Apodaca Education Building.

This school year, a new batch of fifth-grade students have joined the art squad, along with the now-sixth-grade students from last year. Gibson says their first task is to make a list of what artistic endeavors they want to explore next.

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