Ten years ago, a group of parents and teachers began meeting in the library of Vinalhaven School to figure out how to bring a desperately needed art program to their students. Meeting monthly, those volunteers had a fledgling program by the end of the first year. Today the art program has blossomed into a vital K-12 curriculum, and the volunteer group has evolved into the highly successful and well-rounded Vinalhaven School Enrichment Program.

Vinalhaven School Enrichment (VSEC) Director Alice Bissell recalls the group’s beginning. “A group of parents met in the library,” she said. “I remember being asked and I got involved because there seemed to be interest, and I was interested in helping bring the arts into the school.”

Until that time, Vinalhaven students received only limited art education, based on what each individual classroom teacher was able to fit into his or her schedule. VSEC hired Rachel Boyden as a part-time art teacher.

“I guess that upon entering I was `swinging from the hip’ as I had no official training to teach art,” she said. “I based what I did on many years of teaching, childcare and day camp. The younger students dove into anything you gave them, excited to get their hands dirty and `play’ with whatever material that came their way,” she recalled.

“The older students were more wary as they had no experience except for the few projects from other teachers and what they experienced at home. For the most part they all embraced it and ended up walking through the new door opened to them.”

That summer, VSEC held its first fundraiser, an art auction, and raised $10,000 to fund the fledgling art program. For the next two years, Boyden worked out of what became affectionately known as the “art cart,” rolling from classroom to classroom with her supplies. At the time, the Vinalhaven School building was unable to accommodate a space specifically for art classes.

VSEC had started the ball rolling, but the committee knew it could not maintain this level of financial support, much less increase the art budget in order to hire a full-time teacher. “When George [Joseph, SAD 8 superintendent] started in 1999, he essentially agreed in principle to incorporating the art program into the school’s budget in five years,” said Bissell. “The school started by paying for the supply budget, then moved gradually. At first we split the art teacher’s salary, and finally the school took over completely. It happened in three years because the demand was so high. By that time elementary students who had had art were in high school and wanted art.” VSEC has continued to support the art program by providing funding for visiting artists.

While creating an art program, VSEP simultaneously provided numerous other enrichment programs covering a wide array of topics, including natural science, history, theater and music. According to Bissell, VSEC makes it a point to bring in people from their community whenever possible, and to utilize people within the state of Maine. It relies heavily on the Maine Arts Commission artists roster. “It is a way of linking to the community,” she said. In the program’s first year, a local artist ran nearly every program VSEC offered. VSEP’s most recent program was a weeklong song-writing residency by Deer Isle/Stonington fisherman Frank Gotwals. This was his fifth residency at Vinalhaven School.

Through the enrichment program, MBNA has consistently provided funding for visiting artists. “We can be proud because over the years we have been able to reduce our dependence on MBNA. Substantial grants from MBNA in the first years allowed us to provide other programs while we paid for the art program,” said Bissell.

Now that SAD 8 has assumed financial responsibility for the visual art program, Bissell has been able to decrease her grant-writing time dramatically. In addition, in 1998 the Vinalhaven Land Trust agreed to provide enrichment programs in natural science, easing VSEP’s financial burden as well.

VSEP has now shifted its focus toward the performing arts. Bissell asserts that performance has always been a component of enrichment residencies because “when students have an opportunity to perform in some way they share back what they’ve learned, they learn it better. We knew we ultimately needed a drama program,” she said. With that realization VSEP joined forces with the local nonprofit organization Partners in Island Education to apply for an Island Institute Fellow in the performing arts. In the fall of 2003 Karen Burns joined the Vinalhaven staff, and has since staged eight school performances, with two more in the works before the end of this school year.

Bissell and the committee hope that they can follow the model used for the visual art program to incorporate performing arts into the SAD 8 budget. This may be easier said than done in the coming years, as shrinking state funding for small schools impedes curriculum growth.

However, Vinalhaven School Enrichment enjoys administrative support, which helps ease the addition of any new program. One reason the Vinalhaven School administration supports VSEP, according to Bissell, is because “the kids get so much out of it without having to go anywhere. When you have this stuff in-house it benefits the maximum number of kids, particularly those who might not normally choose to do it.”

Art teacher Erica Hansen has high praise for Vinalhaven School Enrichment. “I think the thing that is so amazing about [VSE] is that they have a way of taking everybody’s ideas, and even if the idea doesn’t happen, making everybody’s ideals happen,” she said. That sounds like a tall order, but it appears the Vinalhaven School Enrichment committee is up to the task.