Even though the full-time coordinator of the Artist in the Classroom program will remain employed with Grand Forks Public Schools next year, the program itself has been eliminated.

Mary Kulas, the coordinator, said she’s talked with many people who say they are pleased the program is “saved.” She then has to tell them it will not return.

The confusion comes after the Grand Forks School Board last month voted to make cuts in its workforce but then reversed the decision the following week. The board first approved a reduction-in-force plan, affecting seven teaching positions throughout the school district, at its April 12 meeting; on April 19, the board instead opted to keep those seven teachers on staff next year.

However, the Artist in the Classroom program was eliminated as part of a $4.4 million budget reduction plan approved by the board April 12. That means that six part-time employees who work with Kulas will lose their jobs at the end of this school year.

The responsibility for providing art education in the district’s elementary schools now will fall to the classroom teacher.

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Kulas will continue her employment with Grand Forks Public Schools, but her role will change, she said. She said she has not received many details about the specifics of her new position, but in a meeting with Superintendent Terry Brenner last week she learned that she’ll be working in a professional development capacity, “helping classroom teachers to be able to teach the art on their own.”

Eliminating the Artist in the Classroom program results in a cost savings of $93,500, in terms of salary and benefits for the part-time employees, according to a spokesperson for the district.

At the April 12 School Board meeting, during which the RIFs were discussed, numerous district patrons advocated for arts education; most of the proposed RIFs would affect teachers employed in that area.

“It was extremely gratifying, I thought, and interesting to me that there really was a lot of interest in saving the Artist in the Classroom program,” Kulas said. “I think of us as being a somewhat quiet program, and so that was really nice to hear.”

Placing the burden of teaching art classes on the classroom teacher beginning next year is “a huge concern,” Kulas said. “I do feel that art could fall off the back of the wagon.”

Impact on students

The part-time employees in the Artist in the Classroom program say they are keenly aware of what the program’s elimination will mean for students.

“They’re not getting a well-rounded education now,” said Terri Berg, who has taught in the program for about 15 years. “So many places are turning into STEM education and you need STEAM education, because you need that creative aspect,” she said. STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics.

As examples, she said, “If somebody wants to be an architect, they need that drawing background. Lots of companies nowadays hire people who do creative thinking or out-of-the-box thinking. Well, to nurture that, you have to have art, you need to have an outlet for the kids.”

Her own daughter is an example of the impact that art instruction can have on students, Berg said. In elementary school, her daughter struggled with math, spelling and reading, but blossomed in Artist in the Classroom classes.

“She loved art. And so she excelled, which gave her confidence, which got her to work harder in her other subjects,” Berg said. “There are many students like my daughter who need the creative outlet that art gives you.”

“Kids really need that self-expression, especially after COVID,” she said.

Classroom teachers will take over, providing art instruction, “but it’s not going to be an art curriculum-based art class,” she said. “They’re going to have bigger classes, and they already have such a full load just taking care of what they have to do with basics, that putting this extra requirement on them, I think, is just so unfair to them. I feel so bad for them.”

Berg is concerned about arts programs in Grand Forks schools generally, including the Summer Performing Arts program, absorbing budget cuts in the coming years.

“It’s just sad,” she said. “I used to brag about Grand Forks being so progressive – with having Artist in the Classroom there, having all these things and being such a great art community – and now I can’t say that anymore. That’s very sad to me.”

Benefits of art education

Jeanne O’Neil, another part-time artist whose position has been eliminated, wrote a letter to School Board members.

“Learning to make art is an important part of every elementary student’s education. Practicing art develops independent problem solving and critical thinking, as there is no one right answer to each problem," she wrote. “Making art and studying the art of others introduces abstract thinking, spatial awareness and strengthens observational skills, as well as introducing other perspectives. Learning to make art builds manipulative skills and self confidence.”

O’Neil, who has taught in the program for more than 20 years, is concerned that classroom teachers may not be prepared to teach art.

“I have been told many times, by many teachers, that they know nothing about art or how to teach it,” she said.

A statement was made at the April 12 School Board meeting that classroom teachers are taught how to teach art as part of their college studies, but that is not currently the case at UND, O’Neil said. “The only art class elementary education students are required to take at UND involves how to integrate the arts into the teaching of other topics.”

Like her colleagues in the Artist in the Classroom program, O’Neil worries about “how overwhelmed the teachers already are,” she said.

She offered the School Board members some advice in her letter:

“If all teachers are to be expected to teach art on a regular once-a-week schedule, yearly teacher development training in art instruction would be essential to ensure that all teachers feel knowledgeable and comfortable working with the materials necessary to teach a wide variety of art lessons,” she said.

"I believe that every child is an artist and should have the opportunity to make art. If there is no immediate and organized plan to keep art in the curriculum, I fear that many children will never have that opportunity."

Kasandra Gregoire, whose position was cut, emphasized how important art education is for students’ emotional and social well-being, especially expressing their feelings through art.

“Kids are not going to get all their needs met,” said Gregoire, who holds a master’s degree in education and teaches students in second through fourth grades.

“I feel like art is very important for kids to feel both successful in something and to think outside of the box, and have that creativity, which also does help in academic areas ... (It) is a way of creative problem solving that activates their whole mind.”

Making art is also a means for relieving stress, Gregoire said, noting that she’s seen this in her own daughter, a fourth-grader, who has dyslexia and struggles with reading. “Art is one of those things that gets her going to school and motivated, and lets her express and de-stress.”

Art education also offers students another view into other cultures and ways of life, she said.

“I’m sad that the program is closing,” she said. “I’m sad that I lost my job teaching that I really loved. And I’m sad for my children as well as all of the children that they’re not going to have this component in their lives anymore."