Charleston has always taken great pride in its ability to attract artists and cultural tourists, but due to factors like underfunded schools and curriculum requirements geared mostly toward test scores, most children in the tri-county area have little exposure to the types of activities that help generate a huge chunk of Charleston’s revenue. Study after study has proven the vital role arts education plays in early childhood development, yet it’s still rare to find an “unchartered” public elementary school with a mentionable arts curriculum.
Melissa Bradshaw felt called to address Charleston’s arts education deficit, so the former art teacher started Wee Little Arts, bringing art and art history lessons to area preschools as an extracurricular activity. It took a little convincing to get the community on board with the idea of paying for an extra class after school, but the idea soon swelled. "When the program started in 2000, there were 45 students enrolled," Melissa says, "and then it snowballed in the next two years.”
Almost 16 years later, Melissa and her husband have carefully laid the groundwork so there are now Wee Little Arts franchises in 11 cities around the country, with more in the works. By taking her time making her teaching philosophy part of her brand, Melissa has packaged the academic and fun n’ messy aspects of her concept into something that can be brought to kids across the country.
Fun is what it’s really all about. The children are allowed to have fun while exploring and gaining a deep understanding of art and history—a teaching technique that sticks. It’s rare to hear a 5-year-old boasting about pointillism and Henri Matisse at the dinner table while his little arms are still stained with the pigments he swished around a canvas that afternoon.
Her plans for the future? Besides major expansion, both nationally and internationally, Melissa wants to see her program in public schools in underserved areas, and will work on establishing a foundation to make this happen.
“I just love seeing the kids’ lightbulbs turn on as they get excited,” she says, “and the community has seen the positivity of it and has cheered!”
Words by Shani Gilchrist
Photo by Elizabeth Ervin