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By Sarah Mandala
ARTsmart and the Community Educators Network support students with hands-on learning materials in digital times.
During these unusual times of seemingly steady bad news, it’s vital for us all to reflect on how and when communities rally to address the needs of others, and for the community as a whole. For ARTsmart and the Santa Fe Community Educators Network, rallying has meant finding ways to get educational materials into the hands of students and families to support learning in tangible, not just virtual, ways.
When schools closed in March and public education squeezed itself into narrow digital platforms, many people understood that not all students would learn well within virtual classrooms. Those people mobilized. Santa Fe’s nonprofits, teachers, school system administrators and volunteers united to ensure that students and their families had access to hands-on educational materials and supplies to encourage discovery, expression and experimentation.
Santa Fe’s Community Educators Network (SFCEN) is a collective impact project of the Santa Fe Birth to Career Collaboration, which is an initiative of the Santa Fe Community Foundation. Collective impact collaborations such as the Community Educators Network assume that when organizations work together to share resources, training and content, they amplify and strengthen their individual efforts. SFCEN formed six years ago, and members meet monthly for resource sharing, community presentations and professional development. Membership is fluid but ranges from small nonprofits like ARTsmart, MathAmigos, Wise Fool New Mexico and Vital Spaces, to museums such as the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe Children's Museum, SITE Santa Fe, IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Museum of International Folk Art, and Santa Fe Botanical Garden, as well as state-run institutions like the New Mexico Office of Archeological Studies and the Museum of New Mexico.
In the initial days of the lockdown, as the shift to digital learning was underway, a wide-scale resource-sharing effort began taking shape. Grace Meyer, president of the Santa Fe affiliate of the National Education Association, reached out to various organizations looking for educational materials to distribute at city-wide meal distribution sites. ARTsmart began assembling art activity packets, and by early May, SFCEN got on board, expanding the supplies in these packets to support a broader range of multidisciplinary activities including math puzzles and games, nature journaling and bean investigation, cross-cultural folk art traditions, archeological bone study, wildlife coloring books, and a variety of other arts activities. Parents could pick up this packet of materials while picking up their children’s meals at the city’s distribution sites. Here are two examples of educational projects included in the packets, History at Home from the Los Alamos History Museum, and Math Games and Puzzles from MathAmigos. Look for more on the Santa Fe Community Educators website.
By pooling our efforts, we were able to reach families at seven school sites each week through June. By the end of the school year, we had distributed over 19,000 sets of materials, and we continued through the city of Santa Fe’s summer programs for kids, giving students and families had access to multidisciplinary activities at a time when families needed tangible activities to keep kids curious and learning. ARTsmart also shared Art Inspiration kits and art supplies with students of Española Public Schools, the SFPS Adelante Program for children and families experiencing homeless, Salazar Elementary School, and families working with SFPS Native American Student Services.
This undertaking was helpful to my work. Weeks before lockdown, I accepted a promotion to become ARTsmart’s executive director. ARTsmart joined a coalition with means to share inspiring art activities and supplies during the lockdown. It was also a support group! While the world seemed to go sideways, this united band of creative educators was an encouraging touchstone. Because of our central location, ARTsmart was the weekly hub for the participating organizations to drop-off materials, which were taken to the distribution sites. Working with the group to get packets to meal sites energized me to persevere, adapt and serve students; it kept me on track to fulfill ARTsmart’s mission and remain hopeful on tough days.
As distance learning continues, Community Educators Network members will build on last year’s efforts and share hands-on learning packets with students in Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties. Conversations during Community Educator Network meetings have also inspired us to think about how we might further address what students and families are missing during closures. Displays of student artwork in schools are a sincere expression of the importance of children’s creativity to their school community.
How can we make up for this missed opportunity while schools are closed? As ARTsmart builds this year’s programs with artists, art teachers and other nonprofits, we plan to expand our exhibits of youth artworks by re-envisioning Santa Fe’s streets as school hallways. The Santa Fe Children's Museum has committed to displaying banners of students' work along the fence facing their parking lot, and there is a discussion about student work on SITE Santa Fe's panels facing the railroad tracks. Other plans that are not yet finalized may include billboards and banners on school grounds. Visibility expresses value. We hope to find new ways to make children’s art visible, so they feel less isolated and disconnected.
One fantastic example of community educators supporting teachers and students in a way that encourages us to think big in finding solutions is a year-long thematic program created last year by El Camino Real Academy’s middle grades art teacher Carol Schrader. This project, “Creating Along the Camino,” led students to examine and imagine their school’s namesake, with visiting artist Israel Haros Lopez. Weeks before Carol reached out to SITE Santa Fe and ARTsmart for support, SFCEN put out call to collaborate during a meeting. SFCEN’s annual initiative, Creative Collaborations, which partners nonprofits, teachers, students and creative professionals to share expertise and resources with students, became the backbone of support for this ambitious endeavor. Students created alongside artists, attended exhibits and explored how migration ties together regions, cultures and histories.
Community educators have long supported schools and students within our individual organization by providing experiential education during field trips, in after school and summer programs, and by partnering with teachers to extend curricula. During these exceptional times, we are committed and united to work together to address community needs. Santa Fe Community Educators Network meetings are open to all people who consider themselves to be educators. Monthly virtual meetings are held Fridays from noon to 1 p.m. Visit Santa Fe Community Educators Network for more information.