For nearly two decades, Rutland County Head Start has worked with Vermont arts organizations to bring art and music to its preschool population.
This school year, as the coronavirus pandemic disrupted learning at all levels, the organization worked with its partners to ensure that vital programming continued.
Heather Bullock, program coordinator for the Vermont Arts Exchange, said integrating arts into Head Start classrooms “helps enhance the educational experience for students.”
“What we found is students are exposed to the arts have a more enriching educational experience, and they tend to develop a better overall comprehension of subject matter materials that they may have struggled with in the past,” she said.
Exposing children to the arts at a young age has been shown to foster creativity, aid in cognitive and physical development, and improve academic achievement.
An analysis conducted by the Arts Education Partnership in 2002 showed that studying the arts had a positive effect on students’ reading, writing and math skills, as well as social-emotional development.
According to a fact sheet released by nonprofit Americans for the Arts, low-income students who participate in the arts are twice as likely to graduate college and have a 4% dropout rate — five times lower than peers of the same socioeconomic status. It also noted that arts education experiences lead to a 3.6% reduction in students who receive disciplinary infractions.
In an article on its website, the National Association for the Education of Young Children — the accrediting body for RCHS — states that, “Arts-integrated teaching taps into children’s natural desire for active learning through the senses. By singing, dancing, imagining and connecting their bodies and minds, children learn more deeply and meaningfully, especially in subjects like reading, math and science.”
RCHS has partnered with VAE through a grant-funded program to bring local artists into the classroom since 2014. A similar program exists in Bennington County.
Typically, VAE artists visit RCHS classrooms once a week for 15 weeks during which they lead a variety of arts-related activities. However, due to the pandemic, the program was suspended last March until the fall when it resumed for an abbreviated six-week session following safe social-distancing guidelines.
Linda MacFarlane is a local children’s musician who has been working in Rutland Head Start classrooms for around 20 years. She is an early childhood music and movement specialist who, over the years, has worked in day cares, preschools, libraries and summer camps. She also is a certified music practitioner who plays music for patients at Rutland Regional Medical Center.
She has been part of the VAE partnership for the past five years.
MacFarlane said most her work dried up due to COVID, so she is glad to be back in the classroom at RCHS.
To return safely, MacFarlane had to make some adjustments to her lessons. Students were no longer able to sing or share musical instruments, and social distancing meant that some hands-on art projects, which required close guidance, had to be adjusted or abandoned altogether.
“I had to redesign everything,” she said, explaining that she focused her revised lessons on rhythm, language, ear training and movement.
MacFarlane also brought in her puppet, Frida the Frog — named after artist Frida Kahlo — to help her demonstrate musical instruments like the ukulele.
In the classroom, MacFarlane combines music and visual art with science, literature and math to create dynamic lessons that are tied to early learning standards.
“Kids learn to play and they play to learn,” she said.
Each year, MacFarlane picks a new theme, selecting books and songs that will be woven into various activities. Past themes have included the ocean and the seashore and French Impressionist painter Claude Monet. For the Monet theme, students participated in a collaborative project where they recreated a scene from the artist’s famous water garden.
One goal of the program is to develop lessons that teachers can use after MacFarlane has moved on. She collaborates with teachers on lesson plans and helps them get comfortable singing or doing movement activities so, by the end of the program, they are confident to take over.
“It just helps open the door to explore new experiences in teaching,” MacFarlane said.
Lauren Rosenberg has taught at RCHS for two years. She met MacFarlane in the spring just before the program was suspended.
She said MacFarlane’s presence has been especially valuable this school year, when students have had limited opportunities to enjoy new experiences within the community.
“It’s just so nice to have Linda come in and give these really high-quality musical experiences to our students that they would not otherwise be able to get,” she said.
Rosenberg said her students already miss MacFarlane.
“She just really had a lasting impact on them,” she said, noting that the students always knew when it was Tuesday because that was when MacFarlane visited.
Rosenberg said MacFarlane not only broadens the variety of student experiences, but also the variety of adults they meet.
“Linda is a trusted adult that these kids know and they’re building a relationship with, and they know that she’s going to come in. They can look forward to it,” she said, explaining it is a different relationship than the one kids have with her as a teacher.
“We’re not quite as exciting as Linda,” she joked.
Rosenberg said MacFarlane also inspires Head Start teachers. She said MacFarlane has exposed her and other teachers to different techniques and keeps them “fresh.”
“I got a ukulele for Christmas this year, and I am going to try my darnedest to figure out how to bring that into the classroom,” she said.
According to Kelley Todriff, assistant director HSRC, about 60 preschoolers take part in the arts program in a normal year. This year it was closer to 45 due to COVID, which kept the program contained to the classes located at RCHS’ Meadow Street site.
Todriff said that while the partnership grant is complete for this school year, RCHS will be contracting with MacFarlane to have her return this spring, stating that the “children and staff benefit so immensely from this experience.”
Bullock, who noted that a number of Head Start students struggle in the classroom, said she consistently hears feedback from teachers about the program’s positive impact.
“One or two students who might have not engaged at all are all of a sudden engaging … and other students are finding basic learning to be fun now,” she said. “It’s not just your typical rote math or science taught in a dry way. It kind of spices things up quite a bit.”