In an effort to stem visual arts teacher loss and improve student experience, local citizens have created a group called the Shawnee Arts Council.

At 7 p.m. on November 30, under threat of tornadoes, a dozen or so Shawnee citizens met at a home in Bethel to decide if local art programs were in dire enough shape to warrant community action.

“One of my best friends is an art teacher and is always stressed about money,” said area resident Kate Kamper at the meeting. “His budget is none dollars. He has the school-sanctioned privilege of selling juice and water to his art students to raise money for his art program. The teacher before him had an annual budget of $4,000."

"I live in here. I pay taxes here. Why does this man have to run a juice cartel?”

Fearing other programs may be in similar condition, the group formed the Shawnee Arts Council.

Of nine schools the group questioned only South Rock Creek and Shawnee High School reported adequate funds. Three schools, Will Rogers, Bethel and Jefferson, reported budgets of $0. Other teachers have not been informed if they have budgets, how much those might be or how to receive funds.

When asked about her budget first-year Shawnee Middle art teacher Jackie Thomasson said, “I was given a $500 budget and that went pretty fast!” The school has a student body of over 700.

Schools in the state have continued to suffer from a decade-long per-student funding decrease despite a 2018 $470 million budget increase which will primarily be spent on teacher raises.

The state Board of Education has proposed another $440 million increase for 2019. The spending plan aims to decrease class sizes and hire counselors but fails to address supplies spending for classrooms.

Teachers have been working hard to secure donations where they can.

"Shawnee Presbyterian members helped with donations to my classroom as well as Firelake Grocery," said Thomasson.

Sequoyah's Heather Dunn reports, "I have received donations of styrofoam meat trays for printmaking from Homeland Grocery and cut paper from Demco Printing."

Teachers without adequate funding are spending from their own pockets, yet their concerns have been met with apathy.

Trevor Mastin of Will Rogers Elementary said, "I give students fun pencils and cap erasers for empty toilet paper rolls. Now I have a lot of toilet paper rolls!" Mastin purchases these incentive supplies himself.

“At no point in my interview was I informed that fundraising was a part of my job. Fundraising is something I am allowed to do, adding extra time and responsibility to my work load but I am not required to do it. Having a budget would broaden the spectrum of what I could teach students and not having to spend the extra time fundraising would allow me to improve my skills and lesson plans.”

“And frankly, even as a first-year teacher, I am already tired of the argument circling around ‘teachers should stop complaining, they know what they're getting into when they take the job, so if they don't like it they can quit.’"

“This is my 15th year in education,” said Summer Proffer of Grove School, “but my first year of teaching art. It has been a dream of mine since the beginning of my career, but the opportunity didn't come to be until this year.” Her story is a familiar one all over town; at least eight of the fourteen art teachers in the Bethel and Shawnee area are new and many have not previously taught art.

Members of the Shawnee Arts Council fear if these new teachers, who lack training in fundraising, cannot be helped by the community they may continue to leave, and schools might not be willing or able to replace them.

Most area art teachers are only allowed two or three fundraisers per year. If those fundraisers fail to produce adequate funds no additional financial support exists.

The Shawnee Arts Council hopes to help visual arts teachers by hosting summer workshops in traditional fundraising, online fundraising and grants. Group member and OBU art professor Julie Marks Blackstone is researching ways to bring visiting speakers and artists to classrooms.

The Arts Council will hold a small private fundraiser in October. It is also working with teachers to consider ways to hold a combined school art show as another fundraiser and seeks sponsors for the event.

Emmanuel Episcopal has agreed to assist Jefferson marking the group’s first success in a campaign to enlist the help of area churches. The Shawnee Arts Council is also working with Classroom Partners in hopes of finding donors for art educators.

“We hope to have opportunities to reach out to local politicians and school administrators,” said Kamper, now de-facto president of the group. "One of the worst possible outcomes would be for them to feel our work absolves them from their obligations to students. We shouldn't have to be doing this."

The Arts Council has set up a private Facebook group encouraging teachers to share ideas and has links to possible resources. Another Facebook page called “Shawnee k12 Arts” allows teachers to directly post their needs to the community.

An after-Christmas drive collected used holiday tissue paper, and a current Valentine’s Day drive seeks yarn for Grove Elementary. The "Shawnee k12 Arts" page also posts stories about classroom successes and teachers.

The Arts Council plans to hold annual “Back-to-School” and Christmas drives on “Shawnee k12 Arts” to allow teachers to directly share lists of their needs. A Christmas Amazon Wish List drive in December of 2018 saw over $1,700 of supplies shipped directly from donors to the six teachers who participated.

Jefferson art teacher Diana Bigelow Hall said, “I appreciate the donations and being a part of the community of art supporters. I was never told I had to fundraise when I was hired. I just do it so my kids can have creative experiences.”

“Our goal is sustainability,” said Kamper. “We hope to help new and existing teachers find tools and skills to succeed. We have been told nothing called an ‘Arts Council’ can survive in Shawnee. While traditional arts councils tend to focus on the commerce of art, this group’s novel approach is in recognizing foremost that students may receive the broadest support in our unique community.”

“An arts council who makes supporting arts education in their community its highest priority is, in my opinion, doing what an arts council should be doing. Especially in a small community,” said group member Cami Stinson Engles.

Studies suggest that access to arts education increases student engagement in learning, decreases truancy and improves standardized test scores. Studies also suggest schools with more investment in the arts have better high school graduation and college attendance rates.

“Shawnee k12 Arts” and “Shawnee Arts Council” can be found on Facebook.

The Shawnee Arts Council, founded in November of 2018, meets monthly at the Community Renewal Friendship House to overcome budget issues through citizen initiative and is open to the public. Meetings are from 6-7 p.m. on the second Friday of most months.