How great thou art: Parochial schools blend religion, creativity

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Each art class at Notre Dame Regional High School begins the same -- with a prayer.

"In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit," are the words art department head Jerry Grim leads off his Art 1 class with. The prayer goes by so fast it's almost unnoticeable, a brief blessing asking for God's spirit to guide the students.

After the brief prayer, it's time for business.

"Let's get to work," Grim tells his students. And get to work they do, continuing their two-point perspective drawings of their homes.

Except for the quick prayer, the class seems like one in a public school setting. Students are hard at work with rulers and pencils, drawing like architects on large sheets of paper. Art 1 is one of four visual arts classes offered at the Catholic high school.

Like in the public schools, the Notre Dame finds arts education to be essential, even if providing that education can sometimes be more challenging.

"It's really not any different," said Grim, who started off his career teaching art in Puxico, Mo., at a public school. "The program here is very similar to those of public schools. Our kids are free to express themselves."

Notre Dame, with 490 students in grades 9-12, has the ability to offer band, vocal music and drama classes along with visual arts. Students have to juggle their one unit of art education in high school with other course work and theology classes.

Junior Laura Hermsdorfer, a junior taking Art 3 at Notre Dame, hopes for a career as an illustrator one day. In her opinion, the arts education she's received at Notre Dame is more than adequate.

"Taking art classes here has been a good experience," Hermsdorfer said. "I think it's much better here because the classes are smaller."

Small schools like Deer Creek Christian Academy and Cape Christian School offer a contrast to how larger parochial schools like Notre Dame teach the arts.

With 138 students at Cape Christian in grades kindergarten through 8 and 36 students at Deer Creek in grades kindergarten through 7, they can't offer as much variety.

Rhonda Young, Cape Christian's art teacher, has multiple roles to fill. She teaches two art classes and a history class in the afternoon for grades 6-8, along with a biblical class in the morning. Music and art are taught to younger students in their regular classes and students in grades 5-8 can take band instruction from a college music major before school.

"I could probably use about two more hours in the day to teach art," said Young.

But even with limited resources, Young said the administration at the school has been extremely supportive of art education.

"The board and the principal recognize that it helps kids with their self-esteem, with their coordination, with their creativity," Young said.

Young incorporates Christian ideas into her art classes, discussing the aesthetic beauty in the context of God's creation.

"We don't start the classes with prayer, but when we're working on art, we do include God," Young said. "If we're talking about a painting, we can talk about how amazing it is that God can create something so beautiful for us to paint and give us the talents and abilities to do so.

"Each work of art is unique, and each person is unique."

Deer Creek doesn't reference God in its educating process. The day starts with a prayer, and Christian values are embodied in the school's ethic, said principal Jackie Brandtner, but God isn't part of the curriculum.

With a small student body and a small staff of only five full-time teachers, the school still manages to schedule in 45 minutes of music -- including voice and instrumental training -- and an hour of visual art education every week with certified instructors.

"We think we can accommodate the needs of the children even better than if we had a larger student body," said Brandtner. Small class sizes allow for more in-depth instruction, she said.

And arts education at Deer Creek goes beyond just the 45 minutes of music and hour of art each week. During the day Brandtner said she plays classical music in the background, often taking time out to discuss the music and composers with the students.

The education is supplemented by field trips to museums, galleries and concerts held at universities and colleges.

"Education is so much more than what we see in a textbook," said Brandtner. "Music and art are everywhere and the children need to be taught to find music and art in their surroundings."

Private school educators see the same advantages of art education to a young person's developing brain as their public school counterparts.

"Everything that's written about, everything that happens to man deals with the arts in one way or another," said Grim. "Art really plays an important part in our lives."

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