A decade of painful budget cuts has decimated arts programs in Santa Barbara’s public schools. The result is especially unfortunate given the overwhelming evidence that involvement in the arts leads to gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking and verbal skills, as well as improvements in motivation, concentration, confidence and teamwork.

Fortunately, the art-minded philanthropy of the Incredible Children’s Art Network (ICAN) has quietly been lending support to a handful of local elementary schools since 2005.

The giving, which pays for every aspect of the art programs, except for classroom space, began at Adelante Charter School on Santa Barbara’s Lower Eastside and now includes Adams, Franklin, Harding and McKinley schools.

Noozhawk’s Leslie Dinaberg recently sat down with ICAN art teachers Shannon McCain Jaffe of Franklin School and Angela Lang of McKinley School to learn more about the program, which has students’ work on display this month at the Santa Barbara Central Library’s Faulkner Gallery, 40 E. Anapamu St.

“ICAN has really made our school into a more confident and creative place,” said Jaffe, who taught preschool for 10 years and has been at Franklin for the past five.

“ICAN has changed the climate at our school with the art and music. … I think ICAN just planted the seed that the students are important, that this is a valuable thing — art — and gave them that opportunity.”

Lang — a fiber artist who has been teaching art for 12 years, the last five with the ICAN program at McKinley — agrees.

“We have noticed a difference on our campus, as well, with the teachers, the students and the families,” she said. “Some of our students are the very first generation in the U.S. and art is a connection for them to tell stories about what their grandparents did, what they might have seen growing up if they grew up in Mexico.

“The parents really do see a value in arts. … It just creates another avenue of belonging to the community and forming the community.”

Lang described a poignant scene at the Faulker Gallery opening.

“There were these grandparents who were visiting from Mexico,” she said, “and a little girl who is in first grade was dressed like a princess. I don’t think she’s ever going to forget that. Through the art they are making memories.”

The students also are benefitting from a thoughtful curriculum that incorporates California state standards, art history and art appreciation, field trips and guest-teaching artists.

According to Lang, hands-on art includes “reflection, experimentation, just processing all of the material to take ownership and really feel what that’s like.”

“They’re not copying something,” she explained. “We are examining the style of other artists and then bringing in their own personality and their artistic interests into the artwork.”

During our visit, Lang’s third-grade classes worked on self-portraits inspired by the style of Amedeo Clemente Modigliani.

“They were learning how to draw their hair and also how to look in the mirror,” she said. “Seeing the outlines of their face and their hair and their neck … it’s one of those challenging activities where they have to let go of it looking just like them. It’s reaching beyond their comfort zone.”

Meanwhile, her fifth-grade classes worked on a mixed-media project, which will include an examination of the work of Robert Rauschenberg.

That same day at Franklin School, Jaffe, who is primarily a painter, had her fourth-grade class work on paper masks and paper-cutting techniques.

One class was ready for the X-ACTO knife phase and one wasn’t, laughed Jaffe, the mother of two teenage daughters: Hannah, a Santa Barbara High junior, and ninth-grader Graci.

“I like to introduce as many new materials as I can because that keeps them engaged and excited,” she said.

“The first part of the lesson is structured … to get them to learn the techniques, the process and the rules,” she continued. “The next class is usually more open-ended. They’re taking all of the things and putting them together to create something. They’re really having to think for themselves and solve the problems on their own.”

Lang says the resulting self-confidence is exciting.

“The students start to take more and more risks and become more comfortable knowing that the teacher is not looking for an answer from them,” she said. “There’s not a mistake, it’s an opportunity. To see students take ownership of their work is amazing.”

Jaffe noted that auditory learning is not the only way.

“Art just lends itself to teaching them in so many different ways, like showing them stuff, demonstrating, reflecting,” she said.

In addition to “highly qualified, passionate and talented teaching artists” like Jaffe and Lang, other important elements in the ICAN program are quality supplies and materials. Professional development opportunities inspire teachers’ personal growth and contribute to the program’s vitality.

Bringing in outside teaching artists also energizes the program. Guest artists have included mosaic artist Betsy Gallery, illustrator Molly Hahn, painter Brad Nack, muralist Manuel Unzueta and landscape painter Thomas Van Stein.

“My students are always asking how much money do you make?” Jaffe laughed, referring to the guest artists. “They love to ask them how much money they make — like they are enthralled with the fact that you can make a living doing art.”

Jaffe and Lang agree that teachers and their students are very lucky to have ICAN.

“We have a lot of resources here in this Incredible Children’s Art Network,” said Lang. “We provide quality experiences, field trips, shows, guest artists … everything they need to have a great experience.

“I’m thankful all the time for being part of this program, watching it grow.”

More @ NoozHawk.com