On a hot Thursday morning in October, 25 second-graders are sitting in a circle in the middle of Melissa Kurtz's classroom at Vermont Avenue Elementary School on the border of the University Park and Adams-Normandie neighborhoods of South Los Angeles. Uniformed children in blue and white polos and black slacks jump up and down with excitement as they loudly debate whether the next character in the class's final play about community values should be a wizard or a lion. Many of their hands wave around frantically in hope that visiting University of Southern California graduate student Angelica Martinez, who is putting the play together, will call on them.

Angelica Martinez quiets down Mrs. Kurtz’s second grade students as they create a play together. (photo by Savannah Robinson)
Angelica Martinez quiets down Mrs. Kurtz’s second grade students as they create a play together. (photo by Savannah Robinson)

Amid the cacophony, Martinez notices one student is quiet, looking down at the ground with his head resting in one hand and using the other to rub his eye.

"Class, Lionel has something to say!" Martinez says loudly above the students' noise. Indicating to the quiet boy she says in a softer tone, "Lionel, are you ok? Explain how you feel to us."

After taking a few deep breaths Lionel says,"I feel mad that I can't speak and everyone is talking at once when it's supposed to be my turn."

Martinez looks around the room. "Ok class, what do you think Lionel needs right now to make him feel better?" she says.

Realization flashes on the faces of his peers as they begin to agree and a few begin calling out in support of Lionel.

"We all need to be quiet!" says one student.

Another says, "Let's all have a chance to speak!"

Second grade teacher Melissa Kurtz congratulates a student on her work after helping to create the play. (Photo by Savannah Robinson)
Second grade teacher Melissa Kurtz congratulates a student on her work after helping to create the play. (Photo by Savannah Robinson)

By encouraging others to listen to Lionel, students in this second-grade class are using some of the lessons they explored this academic year through USC's Imagining America Civic Engagement workshops that focus on teaching school-aged children collaborative leadership, communal support, problem solving, respect, and kindness.

Last year, the USC Dornsife Office for Diversity and Strategic Initiatives partnered with the elementary school to put together a series of civically-engaged art workshops for the young students. The program, titled Imagining America: CREATE Your Vision, launched its inaugural year in August 2017. Using various art mediums as a platform, volunteer USC students help the Vermont Avenue Elementary students begin to envision themselves as future leaders in crafting a vision for future America. Now, as the pilot program comes to a close with the academic year, the participants are reflecting on how their relationship with the community has been impacted by the workshops.

For Kurtz, this was different from other student art programs because it pushed them to create artwork that is conscious of the area in which they live and go to school.

"It took you out into the neighborhood and helped them look at their community from a different angle," she said.

VEA student Angel Isaac Melga-Velisa shows off a stool he painted as part of a project with Imagining America. (Photo by Savannah Robinson)
VEA student Angel Isaac Melga-Velisa shows off a stool he painted as part of a project with Imagining America. (Photo by Savannah Robinson)

Through games and creative projects, the students explored what they value within their community and what their roles within it are and could be. Angel Isaac Melgar-Velisa is one of many students who enjoyed the assignment to decorate small wooden stools. After the students painted their stools with vibrant colors, they wrote names of people who matter to them, along with ways to help those they care about and ideas for how to spread values in which they believe.

"To do my chores," Melgar-Velisa said, reading what he wrote on the bottom of his stool. "My mom tells me to take care of my grandma when she is sick, so I give her whatever she needs when I'm home," he said.

In addition to bolstering community values and creative skills, VAES students reported in the program efficacy surveys that they also learned kindness, sharing and friendship building.

The Imagining America: Create Your Vision program is a unique experience for these second-graders. Structured around confidence, empowerment, and teamwork, it guides students to get involved with and celebrate their neighborhood. The children draw themselves as superheroes, write songs about their personal values and collaboratively create theatre skits around helping their community.

These lessons offer something different than most other L.A. public schools art programs, the majority of which are inadequate, according to L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) school data. Many classrooms across the city lack basic supplies, music classes don't have enough instruments, and thousands of elementary and middle school children aren't getting any arts instruction at all. Using LAUSD's data to assign letter grades to school arts programs, a Los Angeles Times analysis in November of 2015 gave out 35 "A" grades, in a pool of more than 700 schools. These grades were based on whether schools offered standard art classes and whether extra arts instruction was given to students.

In that 2015 analysis, Vermont Avenue Elementary scored 20 out of 83 possible points on its arts education evaluation, earning a "C" grade due to the inadequate resources for the arts. This was because at the time of the analysis the elementary school offered only three of the five standard arts classes tracked by the district and did not provide extra programs, according to responses by administrators before the 2015-16 academic year. Although an updated report has not been released this year, providing Vermont Elementary with extra art instruction through Imagining America could significantly increase the school's grade.

Kurtz helps students complete an art project.

Alyssa Cantal is a certified occupational therapist doing her doctoral residency in occupational science and therapy with USC's Imagining America: Create Your Vision. She believes this art program is special because it helps the children acquire critical thinking and social skills naturally.

"Art is an activity that's distracting. They don't know they are developing, but they are," Cantal said.

Art helps increase participation and achievement in schools. According to a 2012 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, students from low-income households who had strong arts programs at school earned better grades and had higher rates of college-enrollment. Around 94 percent of Vermont Avenue Elementary students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, meaning that their families have to be at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

When they started Imagining America: Create Your Vision, Cantal said many of the students struggled with working together. As the classes continued, however, she witnessed a discernible change.

"They've been having to share all of the materials. At first they were like, 'can I have my own set?' or 'he took this, she took that!' But now they're sharing effortlessly and use 'please,'" Cantal said.

Second grade students circle up to discuss how to write their final showcase play. (Photo by Savannah Robinson)
Second grade students circle up to discuss how to write their final showcase play. (Photo by Savannah Robinson)

One of the program's main missions is to strengthen the children's relationship to their peers and with others in the neighborhood. Through group exercises they learn to share, to interact with others, to find collaborative solutions and to be responsible for cleanup.

"My students have become more empathetic. Students have learned to be problem-solvers and not resort to aggressive behaviors to solve altercation," said Vermont Avenue Elementary second grade teacher Maria Piroli.

Her colleague Gilbert Estrada has also seen positive impacts in his second grade classroom thanks to the Imagining America: Create Your Vision program.

"One of the many things my students learned is what it takes to make a community of learners that work together in a peaceful and caring environment," Estrada said. "The instructors are always positive, professional, and very caring. The children feel this."

A wall in Kurtz’s classroom is covered in superheroes that the students drew. Their superheroes all have powers that help the community in some way. (Photo by Savannah Robinson)
A wall in Kurtz’s classroom is covered in superheroes that the students drew. Their superheroes all have powers that help the community in some way. (Photo by Savannah Robinson)

The push toward creating socially conscious artwork in the Imagining America: Create Your Vision program is reflective of the times. Heightened contention surrounding United States politics has inspired artists across the country and abroad to express their feelings on current policy. For example, a large photograph of a Mexican boy peering over the border wall in Tecate, Mexico was installed as news of DACA's repeal began in 2017, "therapy" sticky notes covered the New York subway walls after the 2016 election, and Naked Trump statues popped up overnight in five major U.S. cities. Art that has helped provide solace, humor and empathy has made headlines during the past twenty months, and undergraduate USC student and program volunteer Alejandra Franco believes that art can also help students at Vermont Elementary make sense of the changing world around them.

"I think especially with everything going on in the world, it can be hard for someone so young to understand and grasp- it's so overwhelming. But just having them learn how important their community and every individual is, regardless of their differences, is important."

Though paint ended up on jackets and markers temporarily discolored desks, Franco is excited to continue working with the elementary school students next year.

To participate, the USC volunteers had to attend weekly training sessions where the program director, Rissi Zimmermann, demonstrated how to engage the students in workshop exercises and how to build a healthy relationship with individual classrooms. The training sessions also gave volunteers an opportunity to debrief about how things were going with the workshops. Each week the team adjusted each class's curriculum based on the individual needs and interests of kids expressed during previous lessons. In addition, the volunteers learned about arts therapy practice, cultural competence and early childhood development from different guest lecturers.

"Every part of what happened was necessary in order to better learn about how to approach each workshop," Franco said. "Now that I'm more familiar with each personal student, then I can help serve each individual one"

The students show off superhero cars that they made, which they envision to help the community in some way as well.

At the end of the program, every participant shares their art projects with their community by inviting friends and family to a final showcase. Although this first session did not have enough time to directly present to their community, Kurtz's class performed and recorded the final play to send to their loved ones.

To script the play, the second graders sat in a circle and each took turns adding a sentence to the story, drawing on what they had learned in the workshops about community values and relationships. In putting together the performance, Martinez hoped the class would learn to share her love for theater and feel empowered to speak up.

"Sometimes parents or peers won't hear each other out, so I decided that I wanted to emphasize that they also have a voice and that they are part of a community," she said.

Having just wrapped up this academic year, overall the teachers and volunteers involved in Imagining America: Create Your Vision's first academic year consider the program's implementation at Vermont Avenue Elementary as having been successful. They see the results of the positive progress the young students made in their personal and social lives after the workshops. For next year the goal remains to make sure more children, like Lionel, learn to find their voice and participate in their community.