Prairie Hill teacher has vision for the arts

By Libby Parker
Posted Jan 19, 2012 @ 01:00 PM

Crystal Swanson is passionate about art history, visual arts and Prairie Hill Elementary School. After helping her husband, Dwight, in his construction business while raising their three sons, Swanson went back to school to earn her masters in art and teaching.

In her 50s, an age when most teachers think of retiring, she became a teacher working part time at Prairie Hill.

Ask her what makes this school so special, and she will tell you about test scores. Nearly 93 percent of students tested at Prairie Hill and Willowbrook Middle school met or exceeded learning standards in 2010. And why does she think the students score higher here? “The excellent art and music programs,” she answers promptly. “Art is where students are encouraged to be creative. Sometimes a kid will come to art and it’s the only thing that will keep him in school. You don’t ever want to shut a child down.”

One of the reasons for the success of the art curriculum, said Swanson, is the Artist-in-Residence Program, founded years ago by senior art teacher Meredith Williams. “She has done an incredible job. I really give her the lion’s share of the credit for our fundraising and Artist-in-Residence programs.”

Each year, an artist is brought in to demonstrate and teach his or her craft to one grade. To help raise money for the program, a fundraiser is held at the beginning of each school year. Students create an art project and pictures are sent to Square 1 Art, where they are incorporated on mugs, T-shirts, and other items that parents can purchase. A percentage of the profits go to the art program.  

Swanson met fiber artist Nancy McManus Olson at Rockford College and brought her in this school year as their Artist-in-Residence for third-grade students. She demonstrated spinning and brought enough wool for all 100 students to make a wet felt project. Swanson had written and won a grant the previous year which allowed her to purchase materials for a dry felting project as well.

Building on the success of this program, Swanson and Williams recently held a Rock River Valley Art Teachers Symposium at Willowbrook Middle School. They invited the Rockford Art Museum to present continuing education programs previously given at the museum geared toward art teachers.
At the symposium, Swanson gave an art history lecture on Pablo Picasso. She also spoke on the importance of visual art in the schools.

“We live in an age where most children spend 10 hours a day or more in front of some kind of screen, so development of a visual literacy is essential. Art requires students to use their eyes and hands to give form to ideas generated in their brain — a research-proven boost to brain power. In addition to developing problem-solving skills that generate new ideas or create models, students also develop practical skills like estimating, neatness and craftsmanship, along with fine motor skills such as cutting and sculpting. Currently the visual arts provide jobs to 1.25 million Americans and in order for us to remain globally competitive, imagination and creativity will be essential skills in the 21st century world.”

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