Teacher who founded Starksboro art program is retiring

STARKSBORO — After more than two decades at Robinson Elementary School, art teacher Vera Ryersbach is retiring this month. She leaves quite a legacy behind — when Ryersbach came on board as a volunteer in 1989, Robinson was the last school in the Addison Northeast district that did not have an art teacher.
“I volunteered there for a few years before I began teaching,” said Ryersbach, a Starksboro resident. “There was no art department at the time. I had done all my work for certification and I was just beginning to apply for various jobs. So while I was waiting, I was volunteering at my children’s school.”
It turned out to be much more than a hobby. At Robinson, she developed an art program that enabled students to develop artistic skills while working on projects that tied back to their classroom curriculum in meaningful ways. Ryersbach said that instead of a “pull out” program, where students leave their normal rooms for an art period in a separate space with its own curriculum, she preferred to collaborate directly with teachers. As the school’s first art teacher (she became an employee in 1991) she got to play a significant role in shaping the arts program, and did so on the basis of what she had begun to build as a volunteer.
“A lot of area programs try to adapt to the curriculum but it becomes very hard with these short blocks of time,” she said.
The Robinson art program has been a great success, netting local, statewide and even national funding awards over the years. And while many public schools have been forced to make drastic cuts in recent years to “non-essential” programs like music and the arts, Ryersbach said that Robinson’s program has always been committed to making the arts available to all students.
“We have a high percentage of children on free and reduced meals and I felt that it was really important to have that be equalized across the board,” she said.
Aside from classroom materials, Robinson’s fundraising and grant writing efforts have allowed every student to attend performances at the Flynn Center in Burlington free of charge. In 2005, the school received recognition from the Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education Network for its arts program and was able to raise the money to take a group of students to Washington, D.C., to receive the award.
“It opens up all sorts of windows,” Ryersbach said of the arts.
Ryersbach spent her high school years attending classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was raised.
“Art was something I had originally intended to go into,” she remembered. “Then it sort of became elusive over the years.”
She first came to Vermont to attend Bennington College in the mid 1960s, but chose not to continue art studies there.
“It was a little more conservative in the Midwest at the time,” she remembered. “And (at Bennington) there were a lot of hard-edged painting and just some abstract type painting that I wasn’t as familiar with. The problem was that the teachers who at that time came to Bennington were the artists in New York City, and some of them were less teachers than artists, which is not an unusual situation, but they were really working within their kind of art. They weren’t working with what I came with and they wanted me to change everything I did. So I didn’t do that.”
Settling in Vermont proved to be a much easier sell for Ryersbach.
“I just loved Vermont and I never really cared for Chicago, though it’s a much nicer city now than it used to be,” she said.
After college, Ryersbach tried out several jobs. She worked as a medical social worker, working for the Department of Social Welfare and for private nonprofits. She had three children. And then, at age 35, she began casting around for a more permanent profession.
“At that point in my life I realized I hadn’t chosen just one job, I’d walked into many jobs,” she said. “So (I thought), ‘What do I really want to be when I grow up?’”
She began pursuing art again, taking evening classes that were then offered at Mount Abraham Union High School.
“My husband said to me when I came home from one, ‘This is the happiest I’ve ever seen you!’” Ryersbach recalled. “So I thought that might be a clue.”
While working toward her teaching certificate, she began volunteering at Robinson, while all three of her children attended elementary school. After she got certified, she was hired — and has been there ever since.
As she looks forward to retirement, Ryersbach will miss the colleagues with whom she had daily interactions for more than two decades. Last week at a Bristol coffee shop, she shared memories with one of these colleagues, Pat Young, who retired last spring after teaching kindergarten at Robinson for 22 years.
A lifelong educator, Young had taught other grade levels in Maryland, and at the Westford Hill School and a daycare in Burlington for several years before coming to Robinson.
“Pre-school is a little too young, middle school was just not where I was at, but kindergarten seemed just right,” Young said. “It is a great age. I loved it.”
Young, like Ryersbach, began her job at a time that Robinson was undergoing changes. Before she began in 1990, the school had not had a kindergarten program.
Young brought a number of creative and unique learning exercises to her classroom. Of particular note was a journaling program that she began with her students.
“As time went on, the journal became the main focus for learning how to write, as well as a lot of reading skills,” she said. “If you could see what the children do now with the full-day (kindergarten) program — it’s incredible what most kids can write by the end of kindergarten. It’s absolutely incredible.”
Her colleagues also particularly remember a beautiful recreation of a rainforest that she constructed in her classroom each year to give life to her unit on the study of Brazil.
“Grapevines that she hung from the ceiling, that she went out and cut to bring in, and (in art class) we would make various animals and hang them in the rainforest,” Ryersbach recalled. “Adults would make leaves to put on the trees, and flowers. The children loved it.”
Ryersbach, a longtime artist, mother of three and founder of Robinson’s art program, is looking forward to having time to work on some paintings of her own and spending even more time with her grandchildren. Nonetheless, there are some things she will be missing.
“I’ll miss the kids,” she admitted. “I’ll miss being in the room with the kids.”
With a year of retirement under her belt, Young said that taking a break was easier to get used to than she had originally thought.
“We always had summers off so it wasn’t so hard to get used to,” she said.
Ryersbach and Young, along with fellow members of the Robinson faculty who have retired in recent years, will be honored during an open house at the Robinson School multi-purpose room this Thursday, June 6, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

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