Celebrating and building traditions in a creative small town
Sisters School District & Sisters Folk Festival
How many six-year-olds can identify a mandolin?
Three hundred wide-eyed students file into the cafeteria/auditorium for a schoolwide assembly at Sisters Elementary School. They sit cross-legged on the floor, forming a half-circle around the stage while the band sets up their equipment. The students sit transfixed as the group of young musicians tune their instruments and prepare to play. A few parents and caregivers, little siblings and community members who have come for the show chat among themselves in chairs at the back of the large room.
Art covers every corner of the room. Colorful, oversized self-portraits painted by student artists hang high from the rafters like victory banners. A display case illuminates students’ pop-art papier-mâché food sculptures painted in neon colors. Mixed-media collages of kindergartners’ handprints and their poetry hang on the walls. Outside the building, affixed to the fence that circles the playground and soccer fields, is an elaborate scene of wooden flora and fauna, each shape hand-cut by the high school shop class and painted by elementary school students. And that’s just the art you can see.
As the band begins to play, their rousing indie folk-rock fills the building. The students sit quietly for a few songs, engrossed in the music. For the last song, the musicians invite the students to get up and dance. Almost all of them do, wiggling their bodies and throwing their hands in their air as the music washes over them.
After the performance, the band leads a student Q&A. In a reversal of most Q&As, the band opens by asking the students a few questions.
“How many of you play an instrument?”
Almost every hand in the room goes up. The band members laugh, a bit taken aback by the level of enthusiasm. One band member holds his instrument aloft and asks the students, “OK, how many of you know what this is?”
A few dozen students raise their hands, yelling out their answers one by one.
“A tiny guitar!”
With every wrong answer, a few more students put their hands down, and at this point, there are just a few hands in the air, each student practically jumping out of their skin. Finally, a few can’t take the anticipation anymore, and a handful of students yell out the answer in unison: “A mandolin!”
How many six-year-olds can correctly identify a mandolin? In Sisters, the answer is five.
A small town with heart
Sisters is a small town in the Central Oregon high desert, just east of the Cascade range. It’s a community that is closely connected to the land, and residents’ passion for the outdoors runs deep. Hiking, biking and horse trails lead adventure-seekers from city limits into the Three Sisters Wilderness, which encompasses nearly 300,000 acres of glacial lakes, meadows and mountain peaks.
The region is home to the Northern Paiute and Mollala tribes. Fur trappers and miners arrived in the 19th century, followed by sheep herders and ranchers. By the 1930s, the local economy was based on timber. This was short-lived, and Sisters’ last lumber mill closed in 1963.1 The development of nearby resort community Black Butte Ranch in the 1970s ushered in an economic revival to the area. Black Butte’s developers saw the economic benefit of a more vibrant Sisters and offered local businesses $5,000 and design assistance to create a downtown of 1880s-style storefronts.2 Sisters quickly incorporated this Old West style into zoning ordinances, establishing its now-emblematic main drag.
Sisters remains a small town with nearly 3,000 residents, but its population is growing, nearly doubling between 2000 and 2010. Black Butte Ranch remains the area’s largest employer.3 Sisters today is known for its connection to the outdoors, strong community pride and thriving arts culture. It’s home to the long-running Sisters Rodeo, Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show and Sisters Folk Festival. The arts are a part of the way of life in the town and have long contributed to its health, economy, civic life and spirit.
Sisters School District serves a geographic area far beyond town limits, with more than 1,100 students attending the single elementary, middle and high schools. One-third of students at the elementary school and 1 in 5 at the middle and high schools are economically disadvantaged.4 Nevertheless, the district has a history of strong student achievement. Its students consistently score above the state average in writing, math, reading and science. At Sisters High School, 87% of students participate in co-curricular activities,5 and 91% of seniors graduate on time, far outpacing the state average.6
Building on a long history of partnership
Sisters Folk Festival has been a beloved local tradition since 1995. Each year, the Festival showcases more than 50 musicians, attracting thousands of attendees to the multiday festival from Oregon and beyond. The Festival’s educational outreach program, the Americana Project, has brought music and arts education to Sisters Middle and High Schools since 2000; in-school coursework includes songwriting, performing and an exploration of American music cultural influences. The Americana Project complements other creative opportunities at the high school, including music recording and training, music academies, guest artists, residencies, and the Americana Luthier guitar- and ukulele-building program.
At the launch of Studio to School in 2014, Sisters already had well-established and rich opportunities for art education and career-related arts experiences for high schoolers. But what about arts education for younger students? The project team set out to fill that gap with a team that included Sisters Folk Festival staff, Sisters School District personnel, principals at the elementary and middle schools, music and art teachers at Sisters schools, and devoted community volunteers.
The partnership was really well in place between the Sisters Folk Festival and Sisters School District. It’s been cool for us is to build more of a foundational approach to K-8 arts education, because a lot of our programming was seventh and eighth grade and beyond. It’s given us the opportunity to build a foundation and tie K-12 music and visual arts education in the district together.
—Sisters school administrator
From the beginning, the team wanted to develop a comprehensive model for K-12 arts education, solidifying the arts as a core component of a Sisters education. In collaboration with teachers, parents/caregivers and other community members, the team developed a shared vision: Students and the community would recognize that the arts are part of what it means to grow up and live in Sisters, something that makes the community unique and special.
To support this vision, the project team established a core set of activities and goals. They wanted all district K-12 students to have opportunities to work with artists, as artists; to experience the arts regularly, rather than as a one-off or one-year experience; and to have arts experiences that extend beyond the classroom walls and into the community. The project team made a shared commitment to servant leadership and community involvement, which they considered essential for long-term sustainability.
Painting a complete picture
With this shared vision and commitment established, the team started with what seemed like the lowest-hanging fruit: establishing a visual arts program at Sisters Elementary School. The first major milestone was hiring art teacher Karen Williams.
At the beginning of this process, when we met with the Sisters Elementary School staff and administration, one of the questions was "could we get an art teacher?"
—Sisters project team
During the 2015-2016 school year, Karen taught every K-4 student the fundamentals of art, working with classroom teachers to incorporate arts integration into the regular curriculum. Almost immediately, the project team felt that Karen had “fully assimilated into the culture of the school.” After two successful years, the district assumed funding for the elementary arts specialist position.
From kindergarten on, all elementary students now have access to consistent art and music instruction. Visual arts specialist Karen Williams, whose position was initially funded by the S2S grant, has become a critical resource. Her art classes are part of the instructional wheel, allowing her to work with students consistently and meet weekly with teacher teams on art integration.
—Sisters project team
Having launched an elementary art program, the project team looked for other gaps. The new visual arts programming ended after fourth grade, and existing arts electives started in seventh grade. In grades five and six, no visual arts classes were available. Although the middle school arts specialist position was not part of the original project plan, it was key to comprehensive arts education in the district. During the 2016-2017 school year, Sisters Folk Festival started funding a second arts specialist, Judy Fuentes, to teach middle school visual arts classes (this funding was separate from Studio to School funding). Judy worked with Karen to build an “arts pathway” for students, linking their curricula so that Karen’s work with students would lead naturally to Judy’s classes, as students built artistic skills, abilities, comfort and confidence.
Starting in the 2018-2019 school year, every student in the district had an opportunity to take visual art through a combination of arts classes and existing offerings. All K-5 students had weekly arts instruction, and art classes were part of the instructional wheel for most sixth graders and an elective for students in grades 7-12. Art teachers at the elementary, middle and high schools worked together to align the scope and sequence of their classes. Music teachers at all three schools embarked on a similar alignment through their own collaborative planning during the 2018-2019 school year.
River Celebration: Connection
A memorable milestone in this project was the first visual artist residency, which culminated in the River Celebration: Connection event and art installation in spring 2016. Local artist Laura Campbell, who grew up in the community and attended Sisters schools, spearheaded the art installation. The project brought together students of all ages, their families, friends and community members. The installation, a sculptural representation of the Three Sisters Mountains and Deschutes watershed, was constructed out of wooden shapes painted to look like fish, smolt, eggs, boulders, and water – more than 1,000 pieces in all. Each shape was fastened to the Sisters Elementary School fence, visible to drivers and passersby on Highway 20.
More than 600 people helped create this unique celebration of art, science and place. The project honored the local watershed, helping students recognize the importance of the river and its impact on the area’s ecology, geology, habitat and biodiversity. The installation represented the community’s desire to protect its watershed, and brought the community and students together through art. Laura’s residency culminated in a community event with partners such as U.S. National Forest employees and tribal members from the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, who showcased their work to preserve and promote the health of the Deschutes River watershed and Whychus Creek. The event was timed to coincide with the annual Sisters Folk Festival community fundraiser, My Own Two Hands, and included a celebratory parade through downtown Sisters. The project team was energized by the event—its most public programming to date—describing it as “arts integration and community engagement at their most dynamic.”
This is testament to the power of supporting arts and music education, and connecting relevant, important causes through building community. When students write songs about Whychus Creek and the natural surroundings of Sisters, we are reminded that we are all part of this village, raising our children to appreciate art, self-expression and culture, and seeing the connections we all have to quality of life and community.
—Sisters project team
In 2018, the team brought Laura Campbell back for a second weeklong interdisciplinary residency to expand River Celebration. The new iteration, Alpine to Desert, included all K-12 students in the district and expanded the existing installation, adding an additional landscape along the elementary school fence. Sisters High School shop students and other science-based interdisciplinary classes also participated. In this iteration of the project, students had more space to shape and create, making the community’s commitment to the arts even more visible.
Building portfolios to connect artists of all ages
Community was essential to this project, and the team brought the community in in a variety of ways. Beginning in the 2016-2017 school year, K-4 art students collected their body of visual artwork in portfolios, which they shared with family and community members at a spring art show, describing their favorite pieces and how they were created.
For fourth graders, these habits have been built over five years of art through regular sharing and critique of their work. As the elementary school principal explained, students have moved from saying "I can do art" to saying "We are artists. I am an artist!”
—Sisters project team
Community artists and teachers participated as audiences and collaborated with the project team on a rubric to analyze student artwork. At the end of the year, local artists used this rubric to assess student portfolios. This gave the art teacher and project team insight into how students were progressing. It was also an opportunity for students to see themselves as artists, receiving feedback, encouragement and critique from members of the wider art community. At the 2018 spring art show, six local visual artists and two Sisters Folk Festival volunteers used the rubric to evaluate all 309 student portfolios.
In year 5, the team focused on the portfolios of fourth grade students, many of whom had had art instruction since kindergarten. The results were promising:
Analysis tracked the progress of the fourth graders, comparing aggregated and individual scores to their scores as third graders. The analysis showed significant growth from third to fourth grade, suggesting that high-quality, systemic art instruction has had a cumulative effect on students’ skill development, creativity and willingness to explore.
—Sisters project team
A similar effort began at middle school in 2019. Five local artists met with the middle school art specialist to discuss the program and look at students’ digital art portfolios and sketchbooks. They were impressed by the range of tools, materials and art experiences on display, the students’ initiative and ability to reflect on their own and others’ work, and the self-expression and confidence that had been nurtured through individual and collective art experiences. The discussion concluded with new ideas for future community collaborations in the arts.
You can have a livelihood from those things. I think that the talk around arts education here is much different than in other districts. It’s not "Oh this is a fluff class; oh, this is an easy A." This is something that you can really do with your life.
—Sisters Middle School principal
Visual art students in sixth and seventh grade took a gallery walk around town to meet local artists and see them at work in their studios. Musicians from the Sisters Folk Festival came into schools to perform and work with music classes. Students marched in parades through downtown Sisters, held their artwork aloft and played instruments while their families, friends and neighbors cheered and clapped. Over time, with concerted effort, a shared vision, and encouragement from the team, arts education programming in Sisters schools was increasingly shaped by the community, with opportunities for students to connect arts learning to the “real world” beyond the school.
Deepening music education for all students
[We] jumped right in five years ago with visual arts and arts integration, because... the opportunity was there. Now, it’s about getting an integrated music education model for K-12. That’s what needs to be strengthened in an intentional way, now that the visual arts piece is working, strong and in place.
—Sisters project team
The Sisters team made incredible progress toward a comprehensive K-12 model for visual arts programming for the district, but they didn't stop there. Sisters students have long had opportunities to participate in music. Before Studio to School, there was a robust music program at the high school, including the long-running Americana Project in partnership with the Sisters Folk Festival. Sisters Elementary had a K-4 music program, which included percussion, singing, ukulele and movement. But these opportunities weren’t tied together, scaffolded or sequenced. Recognizing this, the project team did what they do best: rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
To strengthen music programming, the team purchased four cellos and 11 violins and started an after-school Americana strings program for grades 3-6, taught by the music teacher at Sisters Elementary. Next, the team added an after-school Americana Music Club for seventh and eighth graders. With this new programming, the team was building a pathway for young musicians to follow all the way to high school.
The team also purchased keyboards for a general music/keyboard class for the 2015-2016 school year. This new class gave fifth grade students a hands-on introduction to music theory, language and history to prepare them for band and choir in sixth grade and beyond. This was yet another example of the team strengthening districtwide programming while meeting younger students’ needs.
Teachers quickly took note of the impact of expanded music and visual arts programming on students. Teachers at the middle and high school saw “incredible changes” in incoming students. Music and art teachers described students as confident, motivated, willing to be challenged, holding themselves to high standards, and taking initiative and ownership in their own learning, preparation and performance. The early foundation of arts programming raised the quality and level of learning and work of students of all ages.
Connecting to the values of the district
By the end of year 5, the arts were integrated into school planning and curricula districtwide, with an articulated art curriculum and sequence of visual arts and music classes for K-12 students. The district’s plan for the 2019-2020 school year included continued funding for the K-4 visual arts teacher, the fifth grade general music/piano lab teacher, the Americana class at Sisters Middle School, and technology support for deeper arts integration into core classes, as well as a commitment to cover the salary of the middle school arts specialist.
Students are thriving in an arts-infused environment that supports creativity, problem-solving, self-expression and cooperation. Overall, elementary and middle school students have made steady progress in their visual arts skills and knowledge as a result of exposure to varied, relevant, high-quality and systemic learning experiences. Students’ art portfolios, classroom interactions, reflections and performances show the positive impact of these experiences on their skills development, self-confidence and awareness of themselves as learners.
—Sisters project team
Underlying the project’s success was the centrality, strength and depth of the partnership between the Sisters Folk Festival and Sisters Schools. Although the relationship began 20 years before the Studio to School grant, and it was strengthened and deepened through the Initiative and took on a newfound clarity of vision and alignment.
Like any partnership, it was not without challenges: Each school in the district experienced administrative turnover and weathered shifting schedules and budgets. But the team returned to its shared vision as an organizing tool, pushing the work forward even in face of challenges and changes.
Our core group has developed a collaborative planning model that will carry well beyond the five-year Initiative, developing programming and even helping shape the school schedule together... Stakeholders and all involved need to be at the table, and expanding that circle over time is key to long-term sustainability.
—Sisters project team
At the end of the grant, the team remained passionately dedicated to ongoing collaboration, implementation, and increasing arts integration within Sisters schools. The Sisters Folk Festival plans to continue supporting the newer arts education programming that was established during the grant, including funding and coordinating visiting artists and artist residencies, supplies and materials, after-school strings and the Americana Project. Behind the scenes, the team continues to plan collaboratively across grade levels and content areas, with an emphasis on the K-12 arts pathway and arts integration. Their work is strengthening Sisters’ identity as an arts-based place, with schools deeply committed to the arts as a core value.
- The Nugget Newspaper (n.d.). Sisters timeline. Sisters, Oregon guide. http://www.sistersoregonguide.com/sisters-history.htm
- Sisters Area Chamber of Commerce. (n.d.) The Sisters country: Sisters History. https://www.sisterscountry.com/Sisters-History; Black Butte Ranch (n.d.). Our history. https://www.blackbutteranch.com/the-ranch/history/
- The Nugget Newspaper (n.d.). Fast facts about Sisters, Oregon. Sisters, Oregon guide. http://www.sistersoregonguide.com/sisters-facts.htm
- Oregon Department of Education. (n.d.). Oregon at-a-glance district profile 2018-2019: Sisters SD 6. Accessed July 24, 2021, from https://www.ode.state.or.us/data/reportcard/reports.aspx
- Sisters Area Chamber of Commerce. (n.d.) Sisters School District. https://www.sisterscountry.com/images/uploads/SistersSchool4PanelBroLRk.pdf
- Oregon Department of Education. (n.d.). Oregon at-a-glance school profile 2018-2019: Sisters High School. Accessed July 24, 2021, from https://www.ode.state.or.us/data/reportcard/reports.aspx