SPECIAL ART: Program Helps Students Shine

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Art can help students take center stage. And, one program is providing an opportunity for those who may not normally get the chance to shine.

Through singing, stargazing and storytelling by a pretend campfire, the special education class at Johnston High School enjoyed a camping trip. Teaching Artist Allison Lingren says, "It's something that's out of the ordinary, something for them to change their way of thinking about something."

Lingren works with VSA Iowa. The program brings art to at-risk students or those with special needs.

Johnston High School Special Education Teacher Andy Cashin says, "They can do things I wouldn't be able to do in a classroom."

This is the third time Cashin invited an artist to her Severe and Profound Special Education classroom. Cashin says, "I have 7 students in my class, and they are all non-verbal. I have 6 students who are non-ambulatory and one who is, so most of the time they are confined to their wheel chairs."

But, this hour long workshop got them dancing, singing and shaking their musical instruments. Cashin says, "They can be hands on and participate in things they're great at: sounds and music and textures and things they love, like any other student would."

36 artists from around the state participate in the program, bringing a wide variety of types of performing art to area schools. VSA Iowa Program Director Elyssa Shapiro says, "We've had an artist who is visually impaired. He played the harmonica and guitar. We've had another artist who did short interactive storytelling with them."

Shapiro says artists will hold workshops in 215 schools across the state this year, bringing art to students who may otherwise miss out. Shapiro says, "We really like to highlight their abilities instead of focusing on their disabilities, so each workshop is designed to do just that."

Cashin says, "You just see the kids be happy, and as a teacher, especially with kids with very profound disabilities, that's all I could ever want for my students, just to feel happy and worthwhile, and to give them a memory they'll never forget."

Shapiro says VSA Iowa has been around for 35 years. But, the group expanded the Arts for Children Program a few years ago and is reaching out to under-served and rural areas.