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Dunbar School explores resilience through art

Dunbar Elementary School’s latest mural project is the product of 150 fledgling artists, all students at the TK-to-fifth-grade campus in Glen Ellen.

“Every student at Dunbar will have worked on this mural,” said one of the project coordinators, Nikko Kimzin. “It’s very aspirational.”

Many hands make light work, indeed.

Dunbar’s latest mural — the campus now boasts nine — is the product of a new strategic arts plan at the school, cleverly dubbed “dunbART,” meant to help kids develop their self-expression skills while countering setbacks from the social isolation wrought by the past two years by the pandemic and subsequent distance learning. The theme of the mural is “Each One to Community.”

The mural is dedicated to the memory of Luis Colin, an 8-year-old Dunbar student who died along with four family members in a car crash near Fresno in January 2021.

“There’s been a lot of grief and sorrow the past few years, and the arts is a way to honor that in a safe way,” Kimzin said. “It’s a way to continue that healing process and shows Dunbar as a small community that cares for one another.”

The program, which launched in February, is a collaboration between the school and Kimzin Creative, a Sonoma County arts and equity consulting group, in partnership with the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation.

The dunbART strategy has several goals: to implement a framework for arts education; provide professional development opportunities focused on the arts for staff and partnering organizations; provide visual and performing arts mentorship for two Dunbar teachers; integrate an arts curriculum into the adopted school curriculum; and bring in six local arts organizations for on-site lunch and after-school arts programming.

Local arts organizations helping with the programming at Dunbar include the Sonoma Community Center, Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, Valley Vibes Orchestra, Art Escape and the Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma Valley.

Angela Ryan, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, said when they initially put out the call for participating youth arts organizations, she never dreamed the response would bring in so many of the valley’s most notable groups.

“Sonoma Valley is lucky to have such talented and dedicated creative arts organizations,” Ryan said. “Dunbar students and staff will benefit from the unique vision that this program will bring to life.”

Sonoma Community Center artists have already spent several weeks bringing their “becoming an artist” lessons to the lower grades, while ArtEscape led special day classes in printing, painting and poetry, said Kimzin.

Flockworks, a Mendocino-based nonprofit dedicated to engaging communities through art, organized the Dunbar mural project and put the finishing touches on the student-made work, which spans a wall near the children’s lunch area, earlier this month.

Kimzin sees the ample need for healing as a direct result of the pandemic, when student isolation coincided with the stoppage of in-person arts programming. He wanted the program to come from a trauma-informed approach.

Among the first things he did at the onset of dunbARTS was to reach out to teachers about what types of art would benefit students most.

“The No. 1 thing I took away from that was the need for confidence,” Kimzin said. “To get students to try new things and not be afraid to be wrong.”

Another primary goal of the program is to equip educators with the tools to combine art into their curriculum. “We want them to have the strategies, tips and tricks to integrate it into history or math or science,” Kimzin said. “Not only give them a fish, but teach them how to fish.”

To that end, a pair of Dunbar teachers will serve as “ambassadors” to the program, receiving mentorship from visual and performing arts consultants who will work with them on lesson plans and strategies. They’ll take those lesson plans and share them with other teachers, so the knowledge is passed facultywide.

At a school with as rich a history in emphasizing arts as Dunbar, it’s a way to “take the arts at school in a new direction,” said Dunbar Interim Principal Katherine Hahn.

The program is still in its infancy, but Kimzin believes the mural project will set the stage for further success. He’s also seeing the benefits of the mural having been an outside-the-classroom project.

“They’re all runners,” he said of students this year. “They’ve come out of distance learning and students are just running in and out of the classroom.”

He said it was the thing that surprised him most in seeing how the kids react to trauma and show their resilience.

And one thing’s for sure, he said: “These kids are resilient.”

Email Jason Walsh at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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