Partnership opens museum doors

Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

NORTH BRANFORD — The school district will partner with the Yale Center for British Art to designate Jerome Harrison Elementary School and Stanley T. Williams School as the first two “museum schools.”

The designation as part of a pilot program at the museum means that kindergarten through second-grade students at the schools will visit the center at least three times a year and have follow-up instruction with an artist-in-residence and a storyteller, said Linda Friedlaender, curator of education.

Teachers at the schools will also have the opportunity to attend professional development courses, and parents can visit the museum with their children outside of school hours.

“I’ve always wanted to expand both the number of students that were coming and also to develop closer relationships to more of the classroom teachers so that we could increase their comfort level in the museum,” Friedlaender said. “What I wanted was a true collaboration where we were working hand in glove with the teachers (and) with the administration.”

The program is funded by a grant from the Hearst Foundation. North Branford Superintendent Robert Wolfe said the grant will provide about $35,000 a year for at least two years.

Friedlaender said she has been working with teachers at Jerome Harrison and Stanley T. Williams schools for several years during field trips to the museum. The teachers and administration were interested in expanding the relationship, which is why the two schools were chosen as the first “museum schools.” She is not sure for how long the program will continue or whether it will expand to other schools and districts.

“The hope (is) that once we kind of get this to be a very smooth-flowing operation that we can increase and add on a grade (in North Branford schools) perhaps each year,” she said. “Hopefully, it can provide a model so that other towns, other cities can talk to us about it if it’s something that interests them.”

She added that working with younger grades helps get students interested in art and the ways to visually “read” artwork at an early age.

“They develop these kinds of behaviors and these skills so that when they come in as older students — middle school, high school — they’ve already got the background of knowledge, information and understanding, so that you can just do so much more with them as time goes by,” she said.

Wolfe said the elementary school students and teachers have already been involved in a “visual literacy” program that encourages them to apply verbal skills to the interpretation of artwork.

“The students have a background in a program, which is already established and ongoing, and there’s a commitment to this template of visual literacy to be placed over the elementary schools,” he said.

Friedlaender said the museum schools program will focus on similar skills. When students visit the Center for British Art, they will spend time sketching, working on writing prompts and describing the artwork in a way that is intended to build their vocabularies.

“After they have thoroughly described a painting, then they are allowed to draw conclusions and interpret the picture,” she said. “One of the goals of this is to help them learn the difference between describing something and interpreting something, and that is to draw meaning from what they see.”

She added while improving test scores is not the program’s goal, these skills fall under objectives for the Connecticut Mastery Tests.

There will be a kickoff event for the program on Nov. 12, after which the district will initiate the activities associated with the program, Wolfe said.

“I believe it’s very important for students as part of their education to have a very, very enriched curriculum and I believe that museums offer that,” he said. “I think we’re very fortunate in Connecticut to have a wide variety of museum opportunities throughout the state.”

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