After-school program at Southwark fosters art and bilingual skills 

“Puentes a las Artes" is the collaborative project of The Barnes Foundation and Puentes de Salud through the William Penn Foundation’s citywide Informal Learning Initiative.

Southwark is housing “Puentes a las Artes” or “Bridges to the Arts,” a collaborative brainchild of The Barnes Foundation and Puentes de Salud through the William Penn Foundation’s citywide Informal Learning Initiative. (Photo courtesy of the Barnes Foundation/Photo by Darren Burton.)

As the dismissal bell rang, students emptied out of Southwark School on a recent Thursday afternoon.

But, some young children stayed behind, as they eagerly anticipated an art class that cultivates lessons beyond the canvas. 

For the third consecutive year, the South Philadelphia school is housing “Puentes a las Artes” or “Bridges to the Arts,” a collaborative brainchild of The Barnes Foundation and Puentes de Salud through the William Penn Foundation’s citywide Informal Learning Initiative.

The foundation recently launched a new phase of its Informal Learning Initiative, a nearly $1.6 million investment to infuse local neighborhoods with programming from the city’s major arts and science centers and museums, connecting two dozen institutions and community organizations across Philadelphia. 

“We’re really looking to help communities develop those learning opportunities wherever children and families are growing throughout communities,” said Elliot Weinbaum, Great Learning program director at William Penn Foundation. “…Many of those community organizations already have deep roots in that neighborhood, so they can help bridge that relationship and help families feel welcomed.”

Puentes a las Artes, a weekly bilingual arts-and-craft session oriented toward children 3 to 5 years old, is the product of two different entities with paralleling missions, specifically focusing on early childhood education.

This emphasis on youth development is designed to reach vulnerable communities, particularly immigrants, such as those populations living in the Whitman, Lower Moyamensing and East Passyunk Crossing neighborhoods around Southwark. 

“I think that partnerships and genuine collaboration are key to doing work that is successful and impactful in making change…Collaboration and partnership is not just taking work and dividing it in two,” said Alexandra Wolkoff, director of education at Puentes de Salud. “That’s efficient and a good way to get things done, but particularly in our partnership, through spending time in each other’s context and in each other’s spaces, we really have been able to build effective relationships there.”

Puentes de Salud, a South Philadelphia-based nonprofit, promotes “the health and wellness of Philadelphia’s rapidly growing Latinx immigrant population through high-quality health care, innovative educational programs and community building.” 

In furthering this goal, the nonprofit has been recently shifting its work toward early development, as the organization noticed a gap in resources for Latinx children between infancy and kindergarten stages.  

Concurrently, The Barnes Foundation, through its community and education outreach, strives to make its programming and exhibitions accessible, such as opportunities like PECO Free First Sunday Family Days, which includes artmaking and storytime.

“When I think about, particularly the population that we serve with our kids and families, it’s a very vulnerable population,” said Barbara Wong, director of community engagement at the Barnes. “Going to some place like the Barnes or any other institution on the Parkway can be very intimidating – if it even resonates in terms of an opportunity. So, how we can open our doors in a more welcoming way, I think, is incredibly relevant for now.”

Some of these Sundays are specifically designed for members of the Puentes de Salud community, providing shuttles from Southwark to the Barnes. 

As part of the program, the Barnes also offers an Art for All Community Pass, a year-long free admission voucher for up to four guests.

“For our families, it’s beautiful, because otherwise, they would not know that they are welcome there,” said Nora Hiriart Litz, the director for Art and Culture at Puentes de Salud. “It’s like a whole world that opens up for them, and it’s really meaningful.”  

The Barnes Foundation received an $8,000 award a few weeks ago from the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance for serving hundreds of pre-K students through its early childhood programs, including Puentes a las Artes. 

Though the programming includes visits to the Barnes, most of the early childhood enrichment comes from the Southwark-based after-school art classes. 

(Photo courtesy of the Barnes Foundation/Photo by Darren Burton.)

Puentes a las Artes is comprised of two groups, including one for 3- and young 4-year-olds and another for older 4- and 5-year-olds. 

The classes utilize art, whether simply learning how to use scissors or observing sculptures from the Barnes, to foster both bilingualism and bi-literacy, as many of the young children are only Spanish-speaking. 

“It’s really about the relationship and connection into art that’s just so important and intrinsic to our mission,” Wong said. “And for this particular program, art is like a launching point for conversation and for dialogue and it’s almost, maybe, our first language in some ways…Looking at art develops that conversation and sort of natural transition into gaining vocabulary and literacy development.” 

Most participants attend Southwark during the day, especially the school’s Head Start program. 

Though the children are encouraged to explore their creativity, the program is rooted in emotional, social and mental development, as the classes strive to prepare students for entrance into the school system and, for many, a new culture. 

In easing this transition, families are encouraged to accompany their children during the art lessons.

“Seeing the moms and the families build community together and get to know each other through sharing space, sharing time and experiences together – is really beautiful and adds to the overall community fabric and resiliency and wellness of an entire community,” Wolkoff said. 

Both Puentes a las Artes instructors and parents say, over the past few years, they’ve observed children blossom on various levels.

They’ve noticed students’ stress levels decrease in preparation for integration into public schools – all while learning to speak English and developing an appreciation for art. 

“I think some of the really beautiful moments are – some of the students who were with us two years ago who are still with us now have really grown and just become so much more comfortable in interacting with other students and really growing those social and emotional skills,” said Lauren Neach, the early childhood programs coordinator with the Barnes. “Even just evolving in English fluency, too, is really beautiful to see over the course of three years.” 

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