The arts are alive and well at area Catholic schools

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, January 26, 2014

The arts are alive and well at area Catholic schools

Third grade students Francisco Constantine and Javier Oldham work on a watercolor painting of Haiti in the art rooms at St. Alphonsus Academy and Center for the Arts on Jan. 21. (Karen Callaway photos/Catholic New World)
Third grade students Maddie Pierce and Ellie Doherty work on a watercolor painting of of Haiti in the artroom at St. Alphonsus School on Jan. 21.(Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Art teacher Patricia Okulinski works with third grade student Sophie Scanlan on a watercolor painting of the Chicago skyline in the artroom at St. Alphonsus School on Jan. 21. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Third grade students Zoe Schnack and Caroline Rosen work on a watercolor painting of of Haiti in the artroom at St. Alphonsus School on Jan. 21.(Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

For many schools, arts are an extra. For some schools, they are not even that, as funding squeezes in public schools and increased emphasis on testing takes away time and resources for education in any of the arts, be they performing arts like music or drama or visual arts.

That’s not the case at Alphonsus Academy and Center for the Arts, 1439 W. Wellington, which decided not only to increase arts education, but to integrate it with all subjects in all grade levels nearly 10 years ago.

The academy, a ministry of St. Alphonsus Parish, works with the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education, said Megan Stanton-Anderson, the school’s principal for the last eight years.

“Our goal is that any medium of art that is integrated do one of two things: be a hook into a new content area for our students, or that it deepen their knowledge and understanding of a content area they have been studying, that it open up knowledge in new ways,” Stanton-Anderson said.

Generally, art is incorporated into units that are already interdisciplinary, bringing more than one subject area into play, she said.

For example, third-graders are about to embark on a study of space and the solar system whose major content area is science, but it will also include reading and math. At the same time, Stanton-Anderson said, “we will use dance to help them understand the pattern of the orbiting planets.”

Each student has a part in the dance, but for it to work, she said, they have to develop an understanding of where all of the other dancers will be. Getting them to that point “can be quite a long process.”

Another example is the first grade’s sled design challenge, which combines art, math and science. Students must choose from a list of materials and design and make a sled. The project culminates with sled races.

“The children have to learn about ideas like ‘rate’ and ‘incline,’ which are quite difficult for first grade,” Stanton-Anderson said. “They have to call on a lot of creativity and a lot of problem solving, and they are integrated around the sled project.”

Earlier, first-graders did a unit, on body systems, with a “heart symphony,” listening to the beat of a heart, the whoosh of blood moving through veins and arteries. The children trace their whole bodies on the floor, then model and make mobiles with different body parts.

“Kids come out of these units and they know the content so well because they’ve used their entire bodies,” Stanton-Anderson said. “This activates their brains.”

But it’s not always easy.

“It takes time to train the teachers, and when your experienced teachers leave, then it takes more time to train the new teachers,” the principal said. “There is so much we are supposed to be doing: integrate technology, make sure you know the Common Core.”

However, many Catholic schools have maintained arts education at a higher level than area public schools, Stanton-Anderson said, perhaps as a way to differentiate themselves and attract students. Most Catholic schools have choirs — and school Masses where they sing — and middle-school plays and musicals. One Northwest Side School, St. Edward, maintains two orchestras, a chorus and several music teachers on staff with an enrollment of about 350 students.

Stanton-Anderson said that parents can encourage their children to understand and use artistic techniques in their daily lives in addition to what they learn in school.

“We always encourage our community to take advantage of all the museums and art workshops in Chicago. One of the things arts help you do is see things from other perspectives,” she said.

“We also really encourage our parents to allow their children to express themselves through different means, even if they don’t have the verbal skills to use words. That could mean drawing a picture or even making a facial expression to show how the child is feeling, tapping into our innate acting skills.”


  • catholic schools
  • alphonsus academy and center for the arts
  • arts education

Related Articles