Students at Unionville Elementary in Kennett Square, Pa., have become canvas connoisseurs thanks to Art in Action, an annual program run by the PTO. With the help of parent volunteers, these youngsters have reflected on the clarity of Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring and ruminated on the limited color palette in one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. And if you think that’s impressive, you should see the amazing mosaics, portraits, and photography they’ve produced themselves.

“Every year, I am blown away by what the kids create,” says Unionville Elementary PTO copresident Karen Ammon. Past schoolwide projects have included life-size self-portraits, Warhol-like silk screens, a large-scale American flag mosaic, and a collage map of the United States made from fabric. For a unit on impressionism several years ago, a painting of the original Unionville Elementary building was hung in the middle of a long wall, which was then painted to look like an extension of the framed picture.

The Art in Action program has two segments: volunteer-led art appreciation classes for students on day one, followed by a major hands-on art project involving the kids, school staff, and parent volunteers. Each year, the entire school tackles one of six different art themes: American art, portraits, impressionism, linear form, photography, and abstract art. Ammon and current Unionville Art in Action chairwoman Karen D’Allaird recruit about 20 volunteers to help steer activities at the school, with guidance from the program’s district coordinator, Lele Galer.

Art in Action was started more than 30 years ago by several Unionville moms who frequented the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The group would bring back a few posters, research the artwork, then discuss the works with students in the classroom. When Galer, who minored in art at college, took over in 2001, she decided the program needed a larger artistic vision. “The problem was that the program lacked thematic consistency; no one had any art history background and so the classes were either full of childish art games or were parents reading facts from note cards,” she recalls. “It was also not tied to the curriculum standards and was going to be eliminated by the district unless someone took the program and reshaped it.”

Galer has since streamlined Art in Action and expanded it districtwide. The process entailed researching grants, copying art posters, and creating a curriculum for grades K-5. Each fall, Galer conducts a two-hour seminar on art appreciation for the Art in Action volunteers from the four elementary schools in the district and gives them information to help prepare for teaching the classroom lessons. And starting in 2008-09, the four schools have been getting 20 copies of a curriculum binder for one of the six yearly themes. The binder contains 20 art images related to the theme, a slide show presentation on CD, and more than 30 pages of information and engaging facts about the artwork and the artists included in the lesson. “Essentially I am giving the parents a real art history course,” Galer explains, “and they are in turn facilitating a dynamic art appreciation discussion with the elementary kids.”

This past fall, Unionville 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders created mini self-portraits fashioned into a huge globe. “What a great example of everyone working together to be part of a bigger idea,” Ammon says. “I just love that moment when you stand and look at [an art project] and think, hey, every single child in the school can walk by it and look at it and say, ‘I did that! And it is awesome!’”

The Group
Unionville Elementary PTO, Kennett Square, Pa.

School size: 429 students; grades K-5
Annual budget: $30,000
Fundraisers: Wrapping paper, coupon books, book fair, spiritwear sales, craft booth at a local fair, admission/concession sales at staff-parent basketball game
Philosophy: To establish a close relationship between home and school by advancing opportunities for all parents to become involved in the school community.

Art in Action
Parent volunteers facilitate art appreciation classes for students, followed by a schoolwide, hands-on art project

Drawing volunteers: “Because the artwork is so fantastic and the kids are so proud of what they have done on the walls, everyone wants to help and be a part of that,” says Art in Action district coordinator Lele Galer. Plus, she says, “it is the only program in the district that allows a parent in to actually teach a class, and the kids love it and so do the parents.”

Non-artists welcome: No specific art background is required of parents wishing to volunteer. “Some of the very best volunteer parents are those that have never been to a museum or ever thought about art,” Galer says. “It is as if a light bulb goes off and they see a whole new world.”

On a shoestring budget: The program can be run with as little as $100, Galer says. Other expenses depend on the final art project; hanging materials and framing supplies can be costly. To keep costs down for a mosaic flag project, Galer explains, “everyone in the community donated plates and tiles, and we cut them up into manageable pieces for the kids to apply.”