Eleven-year-old Maya Copp remembers when she first came to Bozeman’s Hawthorne School and felt surprised to see artwork all over its walls.

“I was so excited,” the fifth-grader said. “This is like the best school in the world.”

That spark of excitement has been key to Hawthorne’s success for 21 years, ever since its principal and teachers decided to make it a school with an “arts-driven” curriculum.

Over the years, Hawthorne students have been invited to sing at Carnegie Hall in New York City and perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Hawthorne has found its test scores in reading and math are consistently among the highest in the Bozeman School District.

Hawthorne gets no additional money from the school district to pay for art supplies, visits by professional artists and musicians, or workshops by the Missoula Children’s Theater. So the school raises thousands of dollars at its annual art auction and festival.

This year Hawthorne’s Celebration of Children and the Arts will be held May 18. The whole school is getting ready, making individual and group art works to auction to parents and the public.

The first art auction 21 years ago raised $8,000, which blew everyone away. Over the years it has grown in popularity to the point that, before the recession, the auction raised $45,000.

Students in teacher Kevin Wallace’s fifth-grade class have made whimsical ceramic suns with animal faces to sell. Maya made a giraffe face while her friend Delaney Ormsby, 11, chose to make a frog. Making art, Delaney said, is “really cool.”

Wallace recalled back in 1991, when then-Principal Marilyn Delger got a grant to make Hawthorne a model arts school, he had to be dragged “kicking and screaming into this.” He felt he was not an art teacher.

The teaching staff took a bus trip, with Wallace at the wheel, to Portland and Seattle to visit art schools and became inspired to try the same in Bozeman.

It took a year or two, he said, until “I saw the power of it.” What sold him was “seeing students being inspired” when they got to use the arts, even in lessons on social studies, science and math.

“We felt the arts create a vehicle for success in students,” Wallace said, adding that it helps students who may not feel successful in other ways.

Principal Robin Miller said the art-based education gives students “a greater capacity for human understanding,” and helps students excel as “confident, competent individuals.”

In teacher Karen Bailey’s kindergarten class, twins Stetson and Phoebe Tripp were decorating porcelain figures with beads and ribbons to create “tooth fairies” for the art auction.

Bailey said arts-centered instruction has been a success.

“It’s teaching problem-solving,” Bailey said. “You’re not just learning facts. You’re learning facts and how to present them, how to use them. So the kids become more creative.”

When they reach Bozeman High, she said, Hawthorne grads are active in speech and debate, drama and the Hawk Tawk student newspaper.

Both veteran teachers earned master’s degrees in integrating arts into instruction, and now both are getting ready to retire, Bailey after 32 years and Wallace after 25 years.

It feels “bittersweet,” Bailey said. “It’s just been amazing – being a teacher, being involved in the arts, being involved in this school.”

Some exciting new events are planned for this year’s arts celebration, Miller said, including the Cinema Circus, showing award-winning children’s films. In addition to the live art auction at 7 p.m., children will sing, dance and play music throughout the school, starting at 5 p.m. There will be food and silent auctions. The event is open to the public.

“I think it will be amazing,” Bailey said.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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