PLEASANT HILL (KPIX 5) — Art instruction is often one of the first things to go when school districts slash budgets but one East Bay school district is finding a unique way to bring art to all of its elementary students.

An explosion of color inspires fifth grader Layla Stevens at Gregory Gardens Elementary School in Pleasant Hill.

She draws a penguin and a rainbow.

“Art is really fun. It’s really amazing. It brings the joy into life,” Stevens said.

About 400 students take turns coloring a huge drawing of their alligator mascot. They’re making chalk art, thanks to professional artist Mark Lewis Wagner.

“There’s some art programs kind of in middle school and in high school, but I think there should be art in elementary school. Because that’s where you want to nurture and anchor that creative spirit in them,” said Wagner.

He is the same artist who enlisted thousands of Alameda students in 2008 to set the Guinness World Record for the largest chalk drawing.

But today, the Mount Diablo Unified School District Education Foundation is bringing his chalk drawing lessons to its elementary students over two years.

The foundation’s raised $20,000 to pay the artist, and he donates the chalk and supplies through his nonprofit, Drawing on Earth.

Jessica Clark, with the MDUSD Education Foundation, said when art budgets shrink, some schools can raise funds, but others can’t. This program covers all 30 elementary schools.

“All the students in the district are our students, and we want to make sure they’re all getting what we know to be the foundations of a quality education,” Clark said.

Gregory Gardens Principal Katie Koontz welcomes the project.

“We do a lot of art in the classrooms, but it’s all science and social studies related or it’s integrated with math and reading,” Koontz said.

But here, it’s art for the fun of it.

“Get dirty. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Blend colors. Get messy!” enthused Koontz with a smile.

When asked what she is learning for the first time in the chalk drawing lesson, Stevens replied, “How to make it dimensional and blend the colors.”

Students like 5th grader Halia Miller are learning about shapes, shadows and self-expression.

“You have so much space and you just feel the art,” mused Miller.

It’s a hands-on experience students can draw upon for years to come.

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