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AN ARTFUL APPROACH at Claude Thompson Elementary

AN ARTFUL APPROACH at Claude Thompson Elementary

By M.J. McAteer

At Claude Thompson Elementary, the economic situation is “low,” according to Principal Marypat Warter. Nevertheless, her aspirations for the school’s 265 children certainly are not.

“Every child can live up to the expectations you set,” she said. Still, students at the low-slung, brick school on Rectortown Road near Marshall face some stiff headwinds. Claude Thompson is a Title One school, meaning that more than 40 percent of the children, grades K-5, live in poverty, and about 45 percent don’t speak English as their first language.

The school obviously has a shortage of well-off parents to support its educational endeavors, making fund-raising difficult and money tight. Local Rectortown resident Henry Lavine has been a tireless contributor in many ways to the school. And that that’s why Warter was so happy to form a partnership with Artists in Middleburg (AiM).

“Their support has been a game changer for us,” she said of the nonprofit with a stated mission of providing art educational opportunities to people in the area, especially youngsters. When Sandy Danielson, AiM’s executive director, heard about Claude Thompson’s situation several years ago, she wanted to help.

The organization started donating art supplies, including home art kits during Covid. It also initiated a visiting artist program to introduce the children to mediums and cultures they might otherwise never have had an opportunity to know about.

One of those visiting artists was Barbara Sharp, who has taught art classes at the school, donated art supplies and, during Covid, raised money from friends and with AiM to provide over 150 take home bags of art supplies so the art teacher could give remote instructions.

“I was asked to participate in a career day, and what fun,” Sharp said. “I set up a still life and gave the students pastels to draw and express themselves. Afterwards I had them talk about their work and what part of the art-making appealed to them. They asked intelligent questions about being an artist— training, college, and what can you do with an art degree. Every educator at Claude Thompson is engaged and dedicated to these children.”

From the visiting artists, including another dedicated volunteer, retired art teacher Jim Burns, the students also have learned about Inuit art and carved Arctic animals out of soap. They’ve been introduced to the native culture of the Southwest and made their own version of Navajo sand paintings. With the guidance of a scientist, they also created watercolor pigments out of cabbage juice.

Danielson recalled one workshop, in particular, in which a Chinese artist showed the children the proper--meaning Chinese--way to hold a paint brush. They then drew cats and learned how to write their names in Chinese characters. “They were mesmerized,” she said.

Warter called the workshops “beautiful. They are like a field trip that comes to us.”

As an added bonus, once a year in March in honor of Youth Art Month, the artistry of Claude Thompson students gets displayed in the AiM’s Washington Street gallery. All sales proceeds are donated back to the school.

Claude Thompson Elementary Principal Marypat Warder.

Claude Thompson Elementary Principal Marypat Warder.

Photo by M.J. McAteer

In December, Rectortown resident Henry Lavine sent out an email to friends and neighbors about the needs of Claude Thompson Elementary. Our endowment for teachers is still well funded, including ongoing commitments.The Principal, Marypat, told me her greatest challenge is to find funds for two bus trips a year, not paid for by the County; one to Jamestown and the other to DC to see the museums. Many of the kids have never been to DC. I understand some years in the past, funds were not raised, and the trips just did not happen. Two buses are needed for each trip. They cost $1200 each. We have provided seed money, paying for half and we encourage the school to have fundraisers for the balance. They usually come up short and we scramble to provide the shortfall. It would be great to build a kitty to help on an ongoing basis. If the spirit moves you for this, that would be wonderful.

Just make a notation that it is for the trip fund. Our tax number is 90-006 4878. Best, Hank. The Friends of Rectortown, Inc., PO Box 333 Rectortown, VA 20140.

Last year, AiM expanded its work with Claude Thompson. After winning a small grant from the PATH Foundation, a Warrenton philanthropic organization, AiM wanted to do something more for the school.

“They really listened to us,” said Warter, who told them that art therapy classes might do her charges the greatest good. “The biggest thing is trauma of all kinds,” the principal explained. “It’s not a thing in a can. You have to figure it out.”

Before the first therapy session took place, the 50-plus members of the school’s staff participated in the identical class the children would have. That inclusiveness is a reflection of Warter’s approach to running Claude Thompson like an extended family, in which she and her assistant principal, Molly Hess, assume the roles of “parents who get along.

“We consider everyone on the same level,” she said of her staff. “Everyone has a part in teaching.”

In that inaugural therapy session, staff members created collages to express aspects of their lives and personalities and then discussed them. It was “cathartic,” Warter said. “We had emotions.”

The art therapy sessions at Claude Thompson run once a week for six weeks and are “an extra step in helping the whole child,” Warter said, adding they never would have been possible without AiM’s help. After that, the school and the nonprofit will look toward the next step in their relationship.

“We’ll see where we are then, and what they need,” Danielson said.