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Program that brings USM student artists and educators into local schools awarded $2.5 million grant

Side x Side, a Portland-based nonprofit organization that brings University of Southern Maine student artists and educators into local schools, will expand due to a U.S. Department of Education grant worth nearly $2.5 million.

The money will support an expansion from public schools in Portland to two elementary schools in Lewiston, where children will incorporate art into a variety of subjects.

“We’re leveraging the arts and kids’ natural curiosity and desire to make things and play,” said Beth Wilbur Van Mierlo, Side x Side’s executive director. “They’re learning about history and math and writing, but they’re learning it through these hands-on programs.”

Since the program began four years ago, as many as 80 USM students in either art or education programs have interned in the program, often working closely with children.

“I feel really proud of the students,” said Kelly Hrenko, an associate professor of Art Education at USM and chair of its Art Department. “Our interns in the program are getting out in the community and having real experiences in the schools.”

Side x Side earned the grant despite intense competition. Nationally, about 100 applications were submitted for the Assistance for Arts Education Development and Dissemination Grants Program. In all, 22 grants were awarded in 13 states.

“This grant positions art at the core of all learning,” Hrenko said. “This means we are not creating visual aids to complement new knowledge, instead we are creating new knowledge through art-based learning processes. The benefits of arts integration extend beyond students, affecting teachers and school communities as well. Real arts-based learning requires collaboration between classroom teachers and specialists, students, parents, content experts, visiting artists and community members. Such collaborative relationships contribute to increased teacher satisfaction and success, which leads to happy students, happy schools, and happy communities.”

Among the attendees at the Oct. 30 announcement were U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and USM President Glenn Cummings.

Pingree called the program “a real success story.”

“We have had to be on the front lines to make sure that the money is there for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities and make programs that really return the money to states like ours where it is critically important,” Pingree said.

President Cummings applauded Side x Side for attaining the competitive grant and for helping children tap into their creativity.

“Our businesses are telling us, ‘I need people who think differently, who are innovative and creative and who can see opportunities,’” Cummings said. “There are ways in which you can handle really complex subjects that are enhanced and supported by the power of art. It changes the students lives and it changes our lives.”