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Students Learn the Fine Art of Sensitivity : Education: Kids from Audubon Middle School tutor severely disabled youths from the Foundation for the Junior Blind in a program that paints a picture of hope.


It is a typically busy morning in Audubon Middle School art teacher Karen Cheval's classroom. Outfitted in a flower-print dress, paint-smeared apron and tennis shoes, she moves swiftly, doling out advice on form and expression to a group of young artists.

As the beat of the funk group Zapp plays over a boom box, the group molds its clay reliefs, alternately smiling and grimacing at their works-in-progress. After an hour, Cheval announces it is clean-up time and roundly praises the youths--many of whom have never so much as picked up a crayon--for their efforts, however imperfect the results.

Cheval, 33, usually has little tolerance for slackers but she gladly makes exceptions for these youngsters, who are part of her Arts Academy program, in which Audubon students work with severely disabled youths to create art in a variety of mediums.

"I like helping people who need exposure," said Cheval, who started the academy last month. "And everyone, not just the the disabled kids, benefits from something like this . . . It's really good for 'normal' kids to be able to interact with disabled kids, wherever they are."

In this case, the 27 disabled youths are from the nearby Foundation for the Junior Blind, a facility for visually impaired and developmentally disabled children and young adults. They range from 10 to 15, but are far younger mentally and emotionally.

Many have multiple disabilities and behavioral problems; several can't sit, others can't stay still, and none speak. But Cheval, who takes practical approaches to seemingly impossible problems, said the isolation of the disabled children was incentive to start a program that would expose them to society.

Said Lisa Shavers, Cheval's sister and a social worker at the foundation who collaborated with Cheval: "It's actually therapy for them. Here in this classroom, they have a chance to go mainstream."

For the most part, the Audubon students chosen to work with the impaired youths were unfazed by the potential communication gap. The students--a mixed bag of English-as-a-Second-Language, special education and honor students--guided their charges' hands with unfailing patience, giving no more attention to a sudden cry or body movement than they would a mischievous classmate.

And despite the initial puzzled expressions on some of the disabled youths' faces as they work, bright smiles and energetic head shakes abound at the end of each session.

"I think he really enjoyed it," said Terrie Stokes, a ninth-grader whose charge, Jason, bopped gleefully to the music on the boom box. "I helped him shape a musical note, because that's what he likes--music."

Nelson Morales, who aided a burly, quiet boy named Steven in his project, said he believes the foundation's students are, by and large, normal. "They're just a little different," said the tall 15-year-old.

It was exactly the lack of such positive attitudes toward the disabled, especially among teen-agers, that compelled Cheval and Shavers to write a proposal for the project last year. Although it was conceived as a four-week program culminating in a display of the artworks at Audubon and the foundation, Shavers and Cheval hope it will turn into a semester-long program.

Cheval said she wasn't discouraged when the proposal for the academy was not immediately given the go-ahead by foundation officials, who were in the midst of reorganizing existing programs. But when the principal of the foundation school told Shavers in April that she wanted a project that would allow students to interact with the outside world, the academy was promptly launched--with just $60 for art supplies.

"People are afraid of our kids," said Shavers. "Schools tend to be afraid to have them on their campus. I know Karen, and I knew the academy would be perfect."

To prepare Audubon students for interacting with the disabled group, Shavers held four hours of "mobility" training at the foundation. Students were blindfolded, trained as sighted guides and otherwise sensitized to blindness and other disabilities.

The academy held its first class May 10. From 8 to 9 each Monday and Wednesday morning, a group of about 12 Audubon and foundation students meets to fashion different projects each week: stuffed paper sculptures, expressionist paintings, jewelry, Popsicle-stick assemblages, embossed reliefs. All the projects are on display at the foundation's newly opened Education Center.

Cheval proudly pointed out that many of the academy students' works are superior to those of the regular art students.

"Look at the colors in this painting," she said, gesturing toward a vibrant abstract tacked on the wall. "They're rich and clear, not muddy. A lot of times my students just hurry through a project without really understanding what I tell them about technique. But the students in the academy--both groups--took their time."

Cheval gives up her conference period twice a week to oversee the academy. But she said it is a small price to pay for the satisfaction that came from watching students from vastly different worlds work toward a common goal.

"Art is a great communicator," said Cheval, who often incorporates art projects in the ESL classes she also teaches. "If people benefit from the things I create, like this project, so much the better."

Audubon student Adriana Mendoza, 15, said her week as art tutor went beyond color schemes and teaching.

"Now when I see someone who is maybe a little different, I won't laugh or make fun of them," she said. "They were real nice to work with. You know, they're all human."

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