Columbia Heights Schools don't skimp on the arts

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 10, 2013 - 2:57 PM

Superintendent Kathy Kelly has rebuilt the Columbia Heights school district’s elementary band program and nurtured its K-12 art program even in tight budget times. “We have our head in the academics and our hearts in the arts,” Kelly said.

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Fourth graders worked on an art project based on author Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” in art teacher Joy Baleisis’ class at Highland Elementary School in Columbia Heights. Here, Liyah Strong showed off a creation she called Jasmine to classmates during art class.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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The series of concussions Reed Kelly suffered in high school hockey changed his future. No longer able to play contact sports or even ride a bike, Reed searched for a new passion. He discovered it as a dancer. He’s now a professional starring as Spiderman on Broadway in New York.

It’s a lesson his mother, Kathy Kelly, never forgot. It’s a part of the experience that superintendent Kelly draws from when setting priorities in Columbia Heights Schools.

Kelly puts extensive resources into arts, music and dance education. The small district of 3,000 students bordering Minneapolis has nine art teachers, eight music teachers and a dance teacher. In total, that’s 18 of its 224 full-time teachers.

It’s a striking allocation of resources for a district where about 79 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. But it’s one that Kelly passionately supports. She’s seen it change lives.

“We have our head in the academics and our hearts in the arts,” Kelly said. “Part of our mission is to provide worlds of opportunity for every learner. Not everyone is a cookie-cutter learner. We want to teach the whole child.”

Kelly said her students, many of whom face harsh economic realities, need an arts escape in their lives. “I sometimes think the more acute some of the situations for our students, the more they need both right-brain and left-brain kinds of skills,” Kelly said.

In the past five years, the district has restarted the elementary band program with the help of the VH1 music channel’s Save the Music Foundation, added digital arts, dance and other arts electives at the middle school levels and continued to build on its arts program. Every school in the district has a dedicated arts classroom and an art teacher.

District teachers have won three top state art educator awards and one national honor in the past five years. Kelly was also named Minnesota’s administrative art educator of the year for 2013, and she was VH1’s Save the Music administrator of the year in 2011. VH1 has provided $90,000 for instruments for the elementary school’s band programs.

Columbia Heights Schools’ emphasis on arts is also about exposing students to the vibrant Twin Cities arts scenes at their doorsteps, Kelly said.

“There is so much art culture and entertainment in the city, but they have no awareness of what is over there or what they could possibly be. It limits them and they are just right across the street from all of that opportunity,” Kelly said.

Artistry of teaching

Kelly said the arts program’s success is rooted in its teachers, who are artists themselves.

“You really have to commit to the full-time teaching positions and you have to commit through thick and thin,” Kelly said.

She compares her teachers to Renaissance artist Michelangelo, who took a hunk of marble and saw the sculpture within. “They look at our students and they see the creativity within. They pull it and support it to come out,” Kelly said. “That is really the artistry of teaching. It’s beyond the basics. … That’s what I call teaching to each.”

Columbia Heights arts teachers have racked up a bevy of awards in recent years.

• Highlands Elementary’s Joy Baleisis was named, along with another teacher, as 2013 Minnesota Elementary Level Art Educator of the Year.

• Columbia Academy’s Stephanie Nowak was named 2009 Minnesota Middle-Level Art Educator of the Year.

• Columbia Heights High School art teacher Diane Scully was named the 2010 National Secondary Art Educator of the Year and the 2009 Minnesota Art Educator of the Year.

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