STARS Light The Way For Young Artists

 Stephanie Anestis Photos. 

Stephanie Anestis Photos. 

On a recent Saturday, teachers and elementary school students peeled off their coats and greeted each other with warm smiles deep in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood. It stood in stark contrast to the scene outside, as a cold wind blew through the bare trees on the Foote School’s campus.

Students and teachers weren’t there to make up lesson time that had been lost to the snow. Instead, they were participants in the Schools Together for Arts Resources (STARS) program, gathering together to fill the cold morning with new creations and collaborations. 

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STARS has a history that’s over two decades in the making, and starts with Foote’s place as a small, independent school in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. In 1993, teachers at Foote were seeking opportunities to collaborate with colleagues at neighboring public schools. 

Funded by an anonymous donor, Foote faculty member Laura Altshul coordinated a theater and mask-making workshop with teachers and students from Lincoln-Basset School. After that first success, Altshul applied for grants. 

“It’s not a costly program,” Altshul said. “It runs on a shoestring and it reaches a lot of people.” Now retired, she said she remains passionate about STARS and continues to help with grant-writing: “The more we can do in terms of collaboration, the better the whole world will be, not just our little corner of it.”  

Instruction alternates each week between Foote School, Strong-21st Century Communications Magnet School and SCSU Laboratory, Celentano School, and other partnering schools. Co-teachers take the lead when in their own school. 

“Regardless of what space we’re in, the core of the program is there—teachers, students, learning,” said STARS director and Foote third-grade teacher Ashley Schnabel. 

That rang true as a quiet, wintery weekend morning unfolded in a flurry of activity. Sally Nunnally, a Spanish teacher at Foote and co-teacher of a STARS class called “Hello!/¡Hola!,” started a game of bilingual alphabet bingo with first and second graders, many of whom speak both Spanish and English. She paired them up, encouraging them to be open to working with anyone. 

When co-teacher Carlos Reyes-Couvertier, a first-grade bilingual teacher at Strong and SCSU Lab School, entered, a child spied the box of art supplies under his arm and whispered excitedly to a neighbor.  

Up in the art room, Mike Golschneider, an art teacher at Foote, and John Sykes, a visual art teacher at Celentano, introduced the day’s theme: the Northern Lights. It’s a blending of science and art endemic to STARS: teachers blend varied subjects into irresistible, hands-on activities. 

“If I teach you how to do a blend, you’ll know how to do it for the rest of your life, and it’s a great art skill to have,” Golschneider said, blending paint for his sky as he spoke. 

His enthusiasm was infectious. As he flicked watered-down white paint onto the canvas with a toothbrush to make stars, students let out a collective, delighted exhale and inhale. 

“So awesome!” they gasped. 

Sykes said he thinks so too—about the program as much as its individual projects. “STARS is a great idea,” he said during the session. “Since our schools are right across the street, it’s good to have an exchange, for the students to meet each other.” 

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Building those connections and relationships is paramount to STARS educators. “I’ve lived in New Haven for three years,” said Tony Coleman, a kindergarten teacher from Foote. “Like other cities I’ve lived in, there are clear divides between parts of it. I want to be a part of bridging those gaps.”

He’s in the majority. Cheryl Luzzi, a first-grade teacher at Celentano, said she joined STARS to help merge communities within New Haven. She said she wants her students to be exposed to new experiences—and is using the arts to get there.

In Luzzi and Coleman’s “Cooking Around the World,” students develop valuable cooking skills and get the chance to try new foods by making recipes and craft projects inspired by various countries. This year, they’ve already “visited” Morocco, Mexico, and Japan. Senegal is coming up. To help students understand that Africa is a diverse continent, “we purposefully chose two countries from Africa that are really different,” both teachers said. 

“When the food is ready, we usually do a drum roll and sit around the table to eat,” Luzzi added. “When you break bread with someone, it’s meaningful.”

It’s not just that the students take the lessons home—their parents are learning along with them, too. “We made Moroccan chicken from that recipe,” said one parent to Coleman after class. “It was delicious!” 

“Cooking Around The World” is just one way STARS facilitators have worked the culinary arts into what they do. In a designated kindergarten room, Fran Holzbar and Lynne Banta— kindergarten teachers at Celentano and Foote, respectively—led a perfectly orchestrated two-ring circus called “Cooking from Stories.” 

A vivacious bunch of kindergarteners and first graders surrounded two tables, flour up to their elbows. 

“Let’s look at our recipe,” said Holzbar, “We’ve added the water and the honey…now what else do we need? The yeast.”

“It’s bubbling!” announced one child. Holzbar nodded. “And what do you think is making it bubble?” 

“The yeast?” ventured another. 

At the other table Banta advised, “It’s too thick to use a spoon, now we’ve got to use our…”

The kids chimed in: “hands!” A little face peered over the bowl, eyes shining. “It’s making dough!” 

Later, their hands clean and the dough left to rise, students settled in as Banta read Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban. 

Meanwhile, the “Hello!/¡Hola!” group snacked around the table, chatting easily in Spanish and English. Then they dug in to those much-anticipated art supplies, making animal puppets inspired by the vibrant illustrations in Cuckoo/Cucú by Lois Ehlert. 

Affirmations sprang up around the table: “I love that! You’re doing really good!”

“The kids, as well as their parents, are curious, excited, engaged and appreciative,” said Luzzi. “They’re flourishing,” beamed Schnabel. Everywhere the children are in a state of flow: quiet, content, and engrossed in satisfying work. Teachers circulate with tips and encouragement: wellsprings for these eager young artists. 

Back in the art room, one girl is ready to add Northern Lights to her sky. She took up a pastel, Golschneider watching each move. 

“Smooth it, smooth it…Perfect!,” he exclaimed. “Look at that Northern Light!”

On the page, a constellation of sorts was forming. There was one blooming in the school, too—a marriage of art, literature, language and cuisine that lit up tens of young minds. A whole arts galaxy, ready to be explored. 

“The arts community in New Haven is so diverse,” said Sykes. “Getting students started young and letting them know what’s out there is so important."