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Arts Make Smarts: One Educator’s Mission to Teach Students to Think Like an Artist

May 1, 2017

There’s an impish gleam in his eye, a determined confidence in his stride and a clarity of purpose in everything he does. He looks a bit like Dr. Seuss.

“I’m the Director of the Mind, Body and Soul,” says Michael Sandner.

It’s a title he jokingly pins on himself, but there’s not likely anyone familiar with his work who would disagree.

Charged with supervising all the specialists teaching arts, health and fitness and libraries curricula for the Bethel School District, Sandner’s sanctioned title is Director of Arts Education and Curriculum Integration. And that’s Arts, with a big, bold capital A.

As Director of Arts Education and Curriculum Integration for the Bethel School District, Michael Sandner seeks to emphasize cultural literacy in public education through embedding quality arts education in the core curriculum.

Sandner’s district encompasses over 200 square miles in an area located southeast of Tacoma that draws close to 19,000 students feeding into four high schools, six middle schools, 16 elementary schools and the Elk Plain K–8 School of Choice. While the enrollment and school site numbers are not unusual in size, what flies in the face of the quantitative norm is that these 27 schools are staffed collectively with an incredible 95 art teachers:

  • 14 for band
  • 12 for choir
  • 10 for orchestra
  • 17 for elementary general music
  • One for dance
  • Seven for theater
  • 17 for elementary visual arts
  • 18 for secondary visual arts

This emphasis on arts education is due, in large part, to Michael Sandner’s vision and relentless dedication.

Sandner directs a staff of dedicated arts specialists who teach students — like these little actors — music, dance and visual and performing arts in the Bethel School District.

Having decided in the ninth grade he wanted to be a high school band director, Sandner set his eye on the podium and did just that. Serving 20-some years as an elementary music teacher and beginning band director for the Bethel school district, he had a 360-degree view of the essential place for the arts in education. He developed a resolve to emphasize cultural literacy in public education, and eventually moved on to become an elementary-school principal. In the fall of 2002, Sandner was offered his current administrative position.

It’s no secret that serious teaching and funding of the arts in public schools has been a roller-coaster ride. Following each economic recession, school district budget cuts occur across the country, resulting more often than not in resources being slashed, even eliminated altogether. Even with the arts being recognized as a core academic subject area in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, states and districts have struggled to replace and build a measurable curriculum, one staffed by certified specialists.

Not so in the Bethel schools.

“Our goal is not to develop the next generation of great artists, but rather to guarantee that every child has the tools to think like an artist.” So stated Sandner in a recent visual and performing arts newsletter. “That includes problem-solving, collaboration, communication, imagination, perseverance and creativity.”

Michael Sandner visits students taking visual arts instruction at Elk Plain School of Choice.

Thinking like an artist is also key to Sandner’s success. Backed by a supportive community and armed with a myriad of research pointing to the necessity for arts education, he takes his creative problem-solving skills to every corner of the district, on a daily basis. He recruits and assists with hiring of specialists; collaborates with state and national advocacy groups; keeps an eye on curriculum standards; provides professional development for teachers; and shows up for just about every student performance and art show. Perseverance personified.

“He’s always thinking of that next thing to make what we’re doing in our buildings that much better,” explains Elk Plain School of Choice Principal Chad Honig.

But perhaps Sandner’s most important work is making sure all staff, in all disciplines, receive the encouragement and tools needed to incorporate the arts in their lesson plans. Math, science, language arts, history, current affairs — all benefit from the results of thinking like an artist.

A master of integration, Sandner continues to build a structure connecting the arts to student achievement. It’s a framework that has a good chance of withstanding the test of time and the vagaries of politics. It is no surprise that Washington State Superintendent Chris Reykdal chose Elk Plain School of Choice as the backdrop for a ceremony to accept the state’s newest arts standards in March of this year.

Michael Sandner has visited elementary school classrooms for over 20 years in costume to read "The Cat in the Hat."

Something else of note happened in Bethel School District in March. Without fanfare, a man, looking a bit like Dr. Seuss, donned a blue polyester suit, cat nose and tall striped hat and made his traditional (20 years and counting) visit to elementary school classrooms to read The Cat in the Hat to students in honor of the birthday of Dr. Seuss and the awesome power of the arts.


Kathy Tuohey

Veteran producer Kathy Tuohey has been working in broadcast television for over 25 years. From daily segments to documentaries, her expertise includes arts programming, human interest stories and education specials. She is managing producer of the Golden Apple Awards, produces the Pathways to Excellence education series, and is a contributor to IN Close.  This Northwest native’s natural curiosity about the people and places of our region keeps her on the lookout for the next great story.

More stories by Kathy Tuohey

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Thank you for this story.  I can verify for you that Michael Sandner is a wonderful administrator who truly creates an environment that focuses on Art and it's integration in the classroom.