Those aware of the academic progress at Idyllwild School, might think “smARTS” is also a double entendre. Not only is Idyllwild School the only HUSD school subject to snow days, Idyllwild is one of few schools in the district or county that now scores more than 800 in annual statewide testing programs. Besides the faculty’s efforts, some attribute this achievement to the persistent intervention of a bunch of art devotees.
For 10 years, the state and the Hemet School District have responded to federal and even state criteria for academic achievement by focusing more and more on the subjects which are part of the statewide testing program. In order to try to obtain improvement in the three “R’s” — reading, ritin’ and ’rithmitic — local districts have essentially abandoned the arts curriculum.
These subjects are not tested and funding does not depend upon a school’s or district’s successes in these areas. But Idyllwild is different. Here parents have invested time and money to ensure local students have an opportunity to express themselves and learn about art — all forms of it.
“It’s a good program. It’s a great way to see parents step in and say, ‘We don’t like what’s happening here and we’re going to change it’,” said HUSD President Bill Sanborn.
“But smARTS is also what makes Idyllwild unique,” said former Principal Dr. Emily Shaw, who is now principal at Hemet High School. She was a big supporter of smARTS. She even encouraged her mother to drive from Corona to participate in the program.
The smARTS program is now finishing its tenth year of instilling and teaching the arts to local students. What started as a small program with classes for only four grades now serves all Idyllwild grades from kindergarten through eighth. Nearly every Friday, teachers find time to accommodate the arts in the school’s curriculum.
“Its positive impact on students’ performance provides a well-rounded education,” says current Principal Matt Kraemer. “I see the artistic talent develop through smARTS especially when the students get to Middle School. I’m blown away every year by the Middle School art show.”
Teachers and smARTS participants work together so that students can see and feel the application of art to academic subjects. History, for example, is a good overlap.
This year, as the students studied Egypt, the smARTS program had students design and develop sarcophagi to accompany their academic work. “[The students] didn’t just see photos and turn the page in the text,” said parent Heather Mello, and a member of the smARTS committee and current PTA president. “They had to make a sarcophagus like the Egyptians did.”
“Art keeps echoing across the curriculum,” said parent and photographer Mallory Cremin. “How much better do the students do when they think creatively.”
Joann Tomsche, who is credited with founding the program, observed several classes and saw that students were familiar with art. They understood the vocabulary and its history. She could only attribute this learning to availability of smARTS.
Its success is based on the approach implemented from the very beginning, according to Dianne Suechika. She had two children pass through smARTS and served as paid staff for several years.
“With the extracurriculars offered, there’s a lot of competition and academics is very much achievement oriented,” she explained smARTS unique attraction for students. “The thing about smARTS is that there are no contests, no grades and no one is better or worse than the next child. We walked in and said ‘There’s no right or wrong today.’ I think that’s why it was so enjoyable for many kids — a break in their days.”
Every year, since 2003, parents have been involved in bringing arts into the Idyllwild classroom. And each year has seen the program and effort grow. In March 2003, the program began with three grades — kindergarten, first- and second-grades. Before the academic year ended, smARTS was helping students in grades three and four. Today, every class has time devoted to art.
“We’ve increased our Middle School involvement in the last three years,” said Tomsche. As an artist, she was shocked her sons would not have an opportunity to learn, study and practice art. Her reaction was to reach out to other parents and the result is smARTS.
As the program has expanded, the school has found the space to devote an entire classroom to house the supplies and program. In 2003, the program was launched with a grant from the Dinah Shore Foundation and PTA support. Between 2004 and 2011, the Idyllwild Community Fund has awarded the program more than $25,000 — a sign of continuing success and local support.
With this growth has come more involvement. A mix of experiences allows students to discover many artistic outlets, according to Tomsche.
In Sanborn’s opinion, smARTS has had big impact on the success of Idyllwild students and “validates who we are in Idyllwild.”
Not only did parents create and build the smARTS program, but former teachers such as Lori Maxwell and Karen Smith, who retired from HUSD, are actively involved on a weekly basis now.
“Art was always an important part of Idyllwild School,” Maxwell said. But now she takes special pride when the young students run up and hug her and call her the art teacher. She was my teacher,” Mello said with a smile.
“Kids in music, arts, the theater, sports, volleyball, track — this little school provides a lot of character to Hemet High School,” Sanborn stated proudly.