WASHINGTON – Green,orange,purple,red and yellow human-like sculptures invade the gray downtown background,welcoming visitors to a yellow and orange five-story building that houses a school and art gallery.
Visitors enter an art gallery filled with colorful paintings and a gift shop sells post cards,wrapping paper and jewelry made by students who study there.
The Washington Very Special ARTs Connection,five blocks up 16th Street from the White House,is an art gallery,art studio and public charter school. The art-infused curriculum and activities are offered to children and young adults with learning disabilities and other disadvantages,for free.
“Research and best practices in education have shown that art is a good medium by which people,individuals and kids,learn,” said Richard Offner,WVSA's president and CEO.
WVSA has been in downtown since 1998 and is an affiliate of Very Special Arts,an international nonprofit organization that strives to create learning environments focusing on art for people with disabilities.
Within WVSA are ARTiculate,the adult program,and the School for Arts in Learning,a public charter school for children in kindergarten through eighth grade.
ARTiculate offers employment training,literacy programs,GED preparation and professional fine arts training to about 100 students.
“We are a program that provides services for students with disabilities,” said Marvin Brown,ARTiculate director. “Every person learns differently,and what we try to do is teach them through art.”
Nine students work with artist-instructors every day.
“Because of their disabilities,they can not always comprehend what they read,but most students with disabilities,especially autism,are visual learners so they learn by visuals,by routines and by incorporating their natural talents into what it is that we are teaching them,” Brown said.
The students spend most of their day in the art studios,working at big wooden tables.
Derek Holloman,23,from D.C.,fills the room with his made-up melodies,while Robert Blackiston,22,and Jamal Williams,24,both from D.C.,focus on their painting. They are all working on a commissioned project,using paper bags as their canvas.
Marcus Morgan,23,from D.C.,sitting on the other side of the room,is finishing a portrait of a dog from a photograph. It is another commissioned work,one of a series of 400 such works he and others have completed over two years. Prices start at $100.
“We have to teach them hands on. … If you show them visually and let them do it,they are being taught,” Brown said. “All of this becomes therapy.”
Brown started as an artist-instructor at ARTiculate six years ago.
“I don't think you can do this job and not care,” he said. “These students are like my older children. … It's a job you grow into.”
The effort these students put into learning and creating art is rewarded when their artwork is displayed at the gallery. If an artwork is sold,the artist gets a 30 percent commission and the gallery keeps the rest.
Mary Sellers,WVSA's gallery and outreach coordinator,said the rest of the money pays for supplies,staff,field trips and other expenses.
Every corner of the building bears the students' signatures. The stairwell from the first to the second floor resembles an aquarium; from the third to fourth floor,it's a mural inspired by their visit to a American Indian museum. They recently began work on the small garden,placing mosaics and a birdbath among the plants,and they designed sculptures that decorate the outside of the building.
On the upper floors of this unusual downtown building is the School for Arts in Learning,another aspect of WVSA. SAIL is a public charter school with an art-infused curriculum that serves mostly children with special education needs and from low-income families.
“We see that art as an instructional strategy is a very effective way for students to learn. … It allows our students to learn in very creative ways,” Offner said.
The school is one of the five public charter schools in the District chosen to be part of a pilot program – Response to Intervention – a literacy and math program that helps students struggling with basic learning skills. Offner said that about 60 percent of the 166 students enrolled at SAIL have learning disabilities.
According to the D.C. Public Charter School Board's 2008 Performance Report,92 percent of the students analyzed had an increase in reading scores compared to 76 percent in 2007.
“If we can show it works here,it can work anywhere. And that's important for us. … We can be a very creative model for education,” Offner said.
The school got its share of bad publicity last year when complaints by former employees against the former CEO triggered an investigation of the school's finances.
Offner,who was appointed in July 2008,after the former CEO resigned,emphasized the school was never a target of the investigation.
“We've done a lot of changes and put in place new,effective financial mechanisms,” Offner said.
WVSA also promotes community involvement to spread the word about what the school does.
The ARTiculate art gallery rents its space to other nonprofit organizations for fundraising events and art exhibits.
The gallery has monthly themed exhibits. Each third Thursday,passersby are invited in for snacks,wine and the newest exhibit.
“The idea behind the third Thursdays is basically to create more of a community space at the ARTiculate gallery,” Sellers said.
SAIL also has the Reading Buddies program in which 160 working adults volunteer for half an hour every week to read with a student.
“It is a very valuable way in which we provide a link between what we do and the community of professionals who are working around the areas,” Offner said. “It's been very successful.”