An Empty Classroom In Long Beach Is Now An In-Demand Art Studio

Nica Operchuck Rumion prepares her class for a hands-on arts and science project inspired by Piet Mondrian's use of primary colors. (Photo by Carla Javier)

State law requires schools in California to give students access to arts education. But just because it's required, doesn't mean every school gets the resources it needs for dedicated teachers in all disciplines (think: dance, music, theatre, visual arts, etc.)

Long Beach Unified's art curriculum leader Christine Whipp said the district has "a vibrant arts education program" with about 75 teachers in middle school and high school, "but at the elementary level, we don't have any specific visual art teachers." (They do have about 30 credentialed music teachers who go between the district's 40+ elementary schools.)

For visual and performing arts, the district relies largely on arts partners in the community, teaching artists, and teachers themselves — including those who teach all subjects like history and math — to get creative.

One of those teachers is Stevenson Elementary's Nica Operchuck Rumion. Her official job title is first grade literacy specialist, but she started the Stevenson Art Studio because she thought elementary school education was missing something important.

"It's been focused on the holiday craft of creating the perfect Thanksgiving turkey," she explained. "But what ends up happening is that we don't teach technique. We don't give them time to explore. We don't give them time to a create a voice."

So she took over an empty, unused classroom and created a curriculum that any of her fellow teachers can use — even if they don't have a background in the arts. Three years later, she's now the art studio coordinator.

"It's 100 percent a passion project," she explained.

And now, whenever she wants to get her first graders' attention, she calls to them: "Artists, artists, where are you?" They answer back, together in song: "Here. I. Am." (This, by the way, is way cuter than I could EVER describe. Hear it in the radio version of this story.)

When I visited the Stevenson Art Studio, I asked Rumion why she started the studio and how she did it. Our conversation has been lightly condensed and edited for length and clarity.

How did you become art studio coordinator?

I was a reading intervention specialist and during testing time, the teachers requested that I do something different other than reading instruction. The kids had done hours of testing and they wanted something different.

So, I started coming into classrooms doing art instruction and dance instruction and before I knew it on Fridays, I was booked back-to-back, class after class, multi-grade to do art lessons

Why do you think you were booked back to back to do these art lessons?

Teachers recognize with the increase in technology that there's been a decrease in things like fine motor skills ... We have students all the way in third grade who don't know how to use scissors. Also, with the increase in technology we have an increase in impatience and kids wanting things to happen fast. They definitely recognize that there's a need, but as a multiple subject teacher when you're planning your reading lesson, your math lessons, your writing lesson, an art lesson doesn't always make it on.

Art lessons also require quite a bit of planning if you're looking into have the right resources and art lessons are daunting because of the cleanup, the setup, the potential mess. So, as a specialist where I was going to come in and alleviate that for them, they were very open and willing.

Talk about that process: creating the studio, finding the classroom, the supplies, making curriculum teachers could use.

We were lucky enough to have an available classroom, but it was basically a gutted classroom. So we started with the idea of creative play stations. We worked with the Long Beach arts council and the RuMBa Foundation to collect things like Legos and magnetic tiles, that kind of thing, to create opportunities for students to work collaborative reasoning and problem solving with a hands-on approach.

So we were able to first build the creative play stations, and then from there I started thinking about units that could be school wide, so our curriculum is unique in that kindergarten through fifth grade, if a group is studying primary, secondary colors, the entire school, kindergarten through fifth grade, with a differentiated approach and project.

That really alleviated having to plan completely different lessons school wide ... Any classroom or any student could go in and start, that alleviated us from having to come up with multiple resources. I plan a year in advance. I pick three units for the year.

In terms of stocking that room ... is that stuff you were buying personally and bringing in? How did you make that happen?

For the most part, teachers are very resourceful and we figure out how to do things with nothing.

I preplanned an entire year in advance, and I figure out: "what are absolute things to be purchased, and what are the things that I can put out on a wish list to teachers and parents?" For example, when we were doing José Guadalupe Posada, we needed prints, so that was something I was going to need to purchase. But, for unconventional printmaking I had people collecting egg cartons and collecting things for me a whole year in advance.

It really takes advanced planning, so you can sort out what are the things you can put on a wish list in your community, and which are things you need to purchase.

Speaking of which: KPCC/LAist is collecting stories related to how teachers get and pay for the resources and supplies they need to teach their lessons. If you have an experience to share, tell us in the form below. We read all the responses, but we won't publish anything without your permission.