In 2011, Side x Side’s founder, Beth Wilbur Van Mierlo (a public school parent volunteer and local artist), saw students struggling to understand and retain academic content and recognized a general lack of creativity in the curriculum. Compelled to find a solution, she worked “side by side” with other volunteer parents and classroom teachers to build deeply effective arts-integrated lessons. Witnessing student success and seeing the potential to reach more classrooms, Beth explored additional partnerships and funding sources, which led to a collaboration in 2014 with Dr. Kelly Hrenko, Associate Professor of Art Education and Chair of the Art Department at the University of Southern Maine (USM). Together they applied for a federal Department of Education grant. The joint effort resulted in the receipt of $1.9 million in funds and the establishment of Side x Side as a nonprofit. Subsequently, Side x Side began providing classroom programs across four elementary schools in Portland and created the Summer Arts Institute, a professional development seminar in arts integration for classroom teachers, teaching artists, and USM interns. Since its inception, Side x Side has been awarded additional federal funds, grants, and private funding to further expand outside of Portland and to increase focus on academic achievement in math and literacy; student engagement, creativity, and motivation; teacher confidence; and knowledge acquisition through arts integration.
Side x Side believes that arts integration provides a framework for students to rigorously investigate ideas by asking questions and grappling with complicated concepts. It involves learning disciplines within the arts that provoke inquisitive engagement, experimentation, interaction with peers, evaluation, and dissemination of knowledge. We believe that arts integration creates opportunity and equity in the classroom.
Through our programs, we see meaningful changes in students across the academic spectrum, including in those who learn differently. The shifts that come about in students who are able to digest information in a new way and be seen by their teachers and peers for their strengths, are powerful and profound. This experience can change a person’s trajectory in school and in life.
The impact of Side x Side programs has been particularly poignant for Beth. Throughout her own schooling, she struggled to prove what she had learned on tests, which left her feeling embarrassed and ashamed (not discovering until her sophomore year in college that she had dyslexia). Her own experiences led to the founding of Side x Side and continue to fuel her passion to bring creative approaches to the way children access education.
We have seen over the years that arts-integrated programming benefits everyone, not just those who learn differently, but students across the academic spectrum. Arts integration helps all students to experience and retain their learning, and see themselves and each other in a new light. This changes the dynamic of a classroom completely and builds confidence, connection, and community.
In 2018, we began a partnership with the incredible LilySarahGrace Fund. Founded to honor the memory of three bright, shining girls who loved art and learned differently, the foundation’s work is dedicated to arts integration for the simple fact that it is what is best for students and best for education. It is an honor to partner with LilySarahGrace and we are so grateful for their support and connection in our work together.
In addition to LilySarahGrace, we are grateful for the continued support of our community near and far, in the form of donations and volunteering and more. We are so honored by the support this movement has received and we look forward to improving the educational experience for all students.