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A place for greatness: Student art display dates back decades

Editor’s note: In 2015, Ridgeview Elementary art teacher Heidi Mitchell talked to SNN about displaying student art in Sparta’s administration building. The display is still a fixture at Sparta, and SNN checked back with Mitchell to talk about what the showcase means to teachers and students.

Sparta — The walls inside Sparta Area Schools’ administration building are decorated with the work of a revolving door of young artists from throughout the district. It’s been that way for decades, and there are no plans to change it.

The art showcase area in the boardroom and adjacent hallway was started in the ’90s by parents and teachers in an effort to acknowledge and honor students making artistic strides. 

Upkeep is a labor of love for teachers like Heidi Mitchell of Ridgeview Elementary. Mitchell, who teaches second-grade art and has been with the district for 32 years, helped get the display up and running with the help of a parent support group. To this day, she relishes maintaining it.

‘I think it’s really important to point out to kids that what they have to say, what they have to express, is valued and is important.’

— art teacher Heidi Mitchell

“It really was a way just to highlight and celebrate and feature some of our kids having successes in the arts,” Mitchell said of its beginnings.

She and her teacher counterparts at Sparta’s other buildings continued to maintain the display after the parent group that initially offered support disbanded.

“Us art teachers, we kept it going,” she said. “We make sure the frames are filled throughout the year.”

The benefits of the showcase are “two-fold,” said Mitchell, noting that it promotes both the district and its students. The showcase is particularly important for elementary-level students, who aren’t yet at the point where they have many sports or other extracurricular activities to celebrate.

“It’s just a way of featuring those kids and giving them successes,” Mitchell said. “We make a big deal out of it.”

Picking the Pieces

The selection process involves combing through students’ recent work and finding pieces that make the best use of lessons taught in class. 

“I look at what I’ve been teaching, like the elements and principles of design, how they use their space, quality craftsmanship in art, the quality of the work, how much they’ve filled up,” Mitchell said. “It’s interesting because kids that you wouldn’t expect — they’ll get their art in there, so it’s very unbiased.”

In selecting pieces for Ridgeview’s display, Mitchell starts off by looking at the work of second-graders, then moves on to first grade and kindergarten classes. 

In early December, she started pulling entries together for January and February, which are Ridgeview’s months. Art from other elementary buildings, as well as Sparta’s middle school and high school, is featured during other months. 

When Mitchell finds something that warrants a display, she sends a letter home to the parents of the student-artists. That’s often how students learn their work has been picked, and Mitchell said they’re always thrilled about it.

“They come back, and they’re like, ‘Hey, Mrs. Mitchell, my parents got a letter and my art’s been chosen.’ And I love that,” she said. “That makes me really happy, just to see their joy, and that they see that they did something well, and that this is a really special thing.”

Sparta eighth-grader Madison Waldner created this portrait last year. It was displayed in the student art showcase area (courtesy)

‘Every Child has Greatness in Them’

The art now on display has an abundance of work from first-graders like Jackson LaLonde, Kylie Itter and Phoebe Hubbell, all of whom were elated when they heard their art had been selected.

“I think that having my art in the art show is a new experience and it’s exciting,” said Jackson.

“I like having my art picked for the art show,” Kylie said. “It makes me feel good.”

“I like my art being picked and I think it means that I am good at art,” said Phoebe, “and I like art!” 

Mitchell said having their art selected can have a huge impact on students, and the process as a whole is very much in keeping with her philosophy on education.

“I’ve always believed that every child has greatness in them, every child has something to say and something to create,” she said. “I think it’s really important to point out to kids that what they have to say, what they have to express, is valued and is important.”

K-12 student artwork is also featured outside the school, in showcases at the Sparta library and Kent ISD.

“If someone has a talent in something and shows promise, I think it’s important that we celebrate that,” she said. 

In celebration of our 10th Anniversary, your School News Network team will bring you a wide variety of stories that tie to the decade – like the one here. We’ll re-publish each school district’s first stories and update engaging profiles of students and educators. Additional stories will highlight a decade of change in schools and public education. And we welcome your ideas! Just email us at SNN@kentisd.org

Read more 10th Anniversary Stories: 
Seventh-grader talks about gift of confidence provided by prosthetic arm nine years ago
A veteran superintendent looks back on 10 eventful years

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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