How a Wilkinsburg art teacher is dealing with a school supply shortage

When her students at Wilkinsburg High School needed supplies for a Christmas-themed ornament-making project, art teacher Nancy Rowley went to a local discount store after school and bought salt, dough, corn starch, cinnamon and most of the other needed supplies in bulk with her own money.

The assignment -- in which students learned the properties of different types of homemade clay while making ornaments for their Christmas trees -- was one of the students' "favorite projects of the year," Ms. Rowley said.

Her creativity may have helped her become one of the teachers selected to receive a fellowship to participate in a weeklong teachers institute with the National Gallery of Art this summer in Washington, D.C., she said.

The seminar will focus on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements and methods to incorporate visual art and art history into everyday lessons. The experience comes at an important transitional period for her and the district.

This summer, the middle- and high-school staffs will be merged and the secondary curriculum for core and elective classes completely rewritten to include a wider selection of courses for students, including honors and eventually Advanced Placement courses.

Under the 2013-14 curriculum, secondary students could take only one level of art, so Ms. Rowley's lessons covered mostly foundational topics such as color theory, three-dimensional shapes, portraiture, tessellations and some art history.

"No matter the class and medium you're using, you need to tie the lesson into historical and cultural lessons," Ms. Rowley said. "It helps make it real and fun for the students."

She called the seminar a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" and hopes to bring back some ideas to revamp her curriculum for next school year.

Technical advancement was limited for her art students this year, in part because of minimal supplies and the standard curriculum, Ms. Rowley said. Her supplies mostly consisted of leftovers from last year, including a few bottles of glue, tempera paint and some clay.

Instead of choosing their electives, students were placed based on whether they had already taken a course, because only a handful of electives was available.

Ms. Rowley teaches three periods of art each day at the high school, one at the middle school and one at Turner Elementary School with two periods for travel from building to building. This school year was her first at the high school; the school's previous art teacher retired.

Icys White, 17, said she thought she would be taking a cooking class as her junior-year elective. Instead she was enrolled in Ms. Rowley's art class. Many of the beginning assignments felt like "fifth-grade work," she said. When they finally advanced to other assignments, students had to be frugal with supplies to complete them.

"[Ms. Rowley is] a really good teacher; she's just dealing with a difficult environment," Icys said. "If we have paint, she makes sure we use every single drop of it. If the paint is running out, we just have to mix it with water. I guess since this is Wilkinsburg; we can't have nice things."

Next year, high school principal Steve Puskar said, students will be able to choose from introductory courses such as Art I and Art II and specialty courses such as photography and cartoons and caricatures.

The district has allocated about $200,000 for the expansion of all new courses, curriculum writing and increased supplies for the new classes, district business manager Phil Martell said.

"I know we're in a financial crisis or whatever, but if we don't have the money to do it right, just don't offer it," Icys said of her art class. "That's not fair to us."

Clarece Polke: or 412-263-1889.

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