Inside a cramped classroom on the 30-acre Aurora Psychiatric campus in Wauwatosa, five students made progress on five very different art projects.
Pieces of completed artwork were on display, covering nearly every inch of wall and counter space. The students sat around a large table in the middle of the room, working on their pieces in the medium of their choice.
One painted a portrait while another sketched the outline of a bird.
Kradwell School, a private school serving fifth through 12th grade students, was established in 1963. Many of the students attending the school deal with things like anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, among other things, and are often unsuccessful in a traditional school setting.
Many of the school's students function in the gifted and talented range and need an individualized plan for growth.
"Patrice?" one boy, Aidan, addressed his teacher. All the students call the staff by their first names, making them seem more approachable. "I want to do something for St. Patrick's Day," he said.
Patrice Noonan, the school's art therapist, pulled a felt leprechaun hat from a shelf and placed it in front of the boy. An eighth-grader, he began to draw a replica of the hat on a piece of paper, using pencil. He then traced over the lines in black marker and filled in the drawing using green shades of oil pastels. Noonan checked on his progress periodically; the school limits the maximum number of students in a classroom to five so that each receives individualized attention.
Noonan circled the room, asking each student about his or her project, the meaning behind it, how the student felt about things and what was going on in their personal lives.
"I have anxiety," said Aidan, who enrolled at Kradwell School four to five weeks prior. "In this art room, we can do anything art-related. I don't feel like it's as if we're doing whatever everyone else is doing."
The school does instill core curriculum, but students do not have homework, nor are there traditional disciplinary actions in place, such as sending a student to the hallway or calling parents to report unpleasant behavior. If a student is having a difficult time in class, they go to the art room to work through it and refocus, Noonan said.
"If they have anger, they might want to work with clay," said Noonan, the school's only therapist. "If they have anxiety, they might want to work with beads."
Through art therapy, students learn technical and fine art skills, which help them improve their concentration, organize their thoughts and increase self-awareness and self-worth.
Aidan said he visits the art room sometimes when he's wrestling with his anxiety.
"I'm more at home here," he said.
Across the table, another student, Grace, put the finishing touches on a sewing project.
"Sewing is kind of my thing," she said.
She worked on a pink, heart-shaped pillow that had blue wings and a halo.
"It represents hope," she said.
Grace pointed around the room; other pieces of her artwork, all containing the same heart-shaped design, were hung up on the walls. Using bright pink thread, she sewed a pop tab to the back of the pillow, a makeshift wall hook.
When the project was complete, Noonan handed Grace a hammer and instructed her to hang the pillow on the wall in the hallway outside.
Grace's eyes widened. "I don't want to ruin the wall," she said.
Replied a smiling Noonan, "I'm giving you permission,"
Grace headed to the hallway and gently pounded a nail into the wall, causing the students inside to giggle at the noise.
"There she goes!" exclaimed Noonan. "Good!"
The school has space for up to 90 high school students and about 15 middle school students, said Principal Mary Helen Schulte. Students attend classes for just three hours a day; middle school classes are held in the morning and two blocks of high school classes are held — one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
With three hours of class to work with, school staff is able to wipe out all the "extra" parts of an academic day that take up a lot of time in a traditional education setting. Since class sizes are so small, time users like taking attendance are not needed, Schulte said.
"The majority of our students have been bullied or have been bullies themselves," Schulte said, adding the students are "good to each other" at Kradwell and form unique bonds.