Daily Egyptian

Local art teacher pushes to get art education back into Illinois public schools

By Amelia Blakely, Campus Editor

Local grade school art teacher Josh Shearer is achieving his goal of getting every child in the Illinois public school system access to art education one school district at a time.

“If I got one school to restart their art program it’d be the most important thing I’ve ever done,” Shearer said. “Art is how we understand, interpret, and build culture. The failure to teach that is a failure to teach students.”

Shearer’s passion for art dates back to his early days in elementary school at Century school district in Ullin. He said his art classes taught by Nancy Murray had a tremendous effect on him.

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“No doubt that I learned more in her class than I did in the most of my classes,” Shearer said. “At 12, I decided I wanted Ms. Murray’s job, at 22 I had her job.”

Shearer began his teaching career at Century as an art teacher until the art education program was cut in 2011 due to budget cuts. He said Century, a school district in Pulaski County is one of the poorest school districts in the state and his motivation for this project is to change that.

Since January 2018 has been working with Landon Sommer, the superintendent of Century to reinstate the school’s art program.

Shearer said he asked to go to dinner with Sommer and during the meal Shearer shared his passion for reinstating art education back into school, specifically in his home school district.

“It was definitely encouraging to see someone with his passion about it,” Sommer said. “When he approached me with it and tossed it out there as we could potentially bring art back with no cost, that definitely hooks you in.”

Shearer introduced Sommer to two grants through the Illinois Art Council which provides funding for the planning of the art program’s curriculum, supplies and salary for the educator.

“There’s two grants that go hand in hand,” Sommer said.

The first grant, Shearer said is $40,000 which covers the program planning and the teacher’s professional development. 

The second grant lasts for three years, initially starting at $100,000 and gradually lessens through the years to wean the schools off grant funding.

The structure of the grant helps the school create a sustainable budget allowing the funding of art education, Sommer said.

Sommer said if the grant is approved, in best case scenario the school could get art back in the spring semester of the 2018-2019 school year.

Having art added back into the school’s budget would mean some of the first students Shearer taught as a young teacher would have art classes again – after they were originally cut about eight years ago.

“I see myself in the students that don’t have art,” Shearer said.

Shearer has Cerebral Palsy which physically impaired him from playing basketball, one of the more popular activities at Century. 

“When I was a kid I was short, I was weird, walked funny; at Century the only thing you did was play basketball and I got picked last or not picked at all to play basketball,” Shearer said. “So, I learned how to draw.”

Art allows some students to excel in their artistic talent and teaches all students to think creatively. 

Creative thinking in art and other hands-on learning classes teach students how to use new tools in new ways Shearer said. 

Using instrumental and creative thinking teaches children to critically think and ask questions, rather than answering them Shearer said.

“When students experience something, for example making a mask, then they know how to make a mask better than if they had read an article,” Shearer said.

A successful education, including the arts is the equivalent to a smarter population that is more politically engaged and involved in the community Shearer said.

“One of the most important things you can have in a democracy is an educated voting population,” Shearer said. “You need to do your best to educate the people who are voting if you want to maintain your democracy.”

Shearer highlighted the fact that he, a student from a very poor area with a mom as a teacher and a dad in-between jobs at the time, had a powerful experience in an art class says something about the subject.

“It’s absolutely ludicrous that we are denying that opportunity to our poorer populations,” Shearer said. “Worse than that, these schools in the poorest areas, tend to be darker areas.”

The five local school districts included in Shearer’s mission are Century, Meridian, Lick Creek, Cairo and Jonesboro he said. 

According to the Illinois State Board of Education’s (ISBE) 2017 school report card, approximately 59.9 percent of Century’s students belong to low-income families.

In the Meridian school district 99.6 percent of the students come from low-income families. Approximately 55.8 of Meridian’s student population are black, according to last year’s ISBE’s school report card.

At the bottom tip of the state, Cairo’s ISBE school report card stated 84.4 percent of the student population is black; 99.4 percent of Cario’s student come from low-income families.

Throughout Shearer’s crusade of putting art back into Illinois’ public schools, he said he’s acknowledged the financial struggles and the suffering economy; but he can’t accept that there isn’t room in school budgets for art education. 

“You mean to tell me, we live in a society where poor people can’t afford an art teacher? I can’t live with that. I am going to continue to fight that until I change it,” Shearer said.

Shearer said art education teaches kids to think creatively and use their imagination. Preventing art education access to students in the poorest areas of the state prevents them from imagining a brighter future for themselves he said.

“To not educate poor people so they can continue to live in desperate situations is oppressive, wrong-hearted and stupid,” Shearer said. “We need to give people the tools they need to change the situations they live in.”

Shearer’s mission to provide every student in Illinois public schools access to art education was not recently started. The first steps began eight years ago when Shearer began working on the Board of Directors for the Illinois Art Education Association.

Since then, he has planned six conferences which focused on the professional development of art educators.

Shearer also participates in state advocacy days, which are when art teachers go to Springfield and discuss with legislators the importance of art education in public schools.

In the past two years, Shearer was a part of the advisory committee that created the new visual arts learning standards for the entire state.

Those learning standards will be implemented next year Shearer said. 

During the summer, Shearer said he wants to paint Cairo’s Riverwalk and plans to invite famous artists and art teachers from Chicago help do that. 

“I want to get kids in Cairo to help me do that,” Shearer said. “If we do that, that school changes.”

Throughout Shearer’s crusade of putting art back into Illinois’ public schools, he acknowledges the financial struggles and the suffering economy; but he can’t accept that there isn’t room in budgets for art education. 

“You mean to tell me, we live in a society where poor people can’t afford an art teacher? I can’t live with that. I am going to continue to fight that until I change it,” Shearer said.

Campus editor Amelia Blakely can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @AmeilaBlakely.

To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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1 Comment

One Response to “Local art teacher pushes to get art education back into Illinois public schools”

  1. Rachel Ensor on May 2nd, 2018 1:12 pm

    How inspirational this young man is. Art in the public schools is one of the things that gives people that have nothing hope. It also teaches them how to deal with angst. Get rid of the psychiatrist and just have art. Also another element is it shows young people and avenue for a career if they might be so gifted. Maybe their parents had ordered all gifted in the art so they see nothing of that as an idea for life plan. Just another reason that art is important in the schools. Not educating all of our children rich and poor in the arts and humanities will be a major shortfall in adulthood for them. We do art at the Murphysboro School of Art and love it!

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