In Bristol Warren, an uncommon bond between teacher and students

Leah Keith, who has Down Syndrome, helps her developmentally disabled students learn and grow through the power of expression and confidence

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Even across the dull screen of a 10" Chromebook, the joy was impossible to miss when art teacher Leah Keith logged on Friday morning to talk to one of her classes at Mt. Hope High School.

It was Ms. Keith's 34th birthday, and soon her students would jubilantly sing "Happy Birthday" to the teacher who has become one of their favorites. For now though, it was a time to catch up since the last time they met.

Students clamored for attention on the other side of the screen. Alan Leach held up a small rock he'd painted in a kaleidoscope of purples, blues, pinks and reds. Claudia Rezendes showed off a collage she'd made following a recent assignment. There were others, too — collages and paintings, short poems and other works of art. The kids were excited to see her, as they are every week. And behind their masks, you could see their smiles.

In the four months since Ms. Keith began teaching art classes at Mt. Hope and Kickemuit, her 16 students' day-to-day teachers say they've seen a marked difference in their kids through their interactions with Ms. Keith, who has Down Syndrome. The adage is that the best teachers teach what they know, and in the case of her students, who all cope with autism, Down Syndrome and other developmental disabilities, that connection has opened up a world that previously was not as colorful, warm or inviting.

"As a special education coordinator, one of my goals is to make sure that these students are prepared when they're ready to have a career," said Kickemuit teacher Rachel Koger, who was instrumental in bringing Ms. Keith into the classroom last year. "Leah is more qualified than any other art teacher I know; when she comes into the room, she has a connection with those kids unlike any other. It's been amazing."

Expression through art

For much of her life, Ms. Keith felt like an outsider. Growing up in Barrington, she yearned to but always had a hard time relating to and fitting in with the wider world around her. But early on she found a doorway in art and the written word. Expressing herself creatively has given her the joy of self-expression, taught her self-confidence and provided a passion and a purpose. It has made her feel connected, and she has thrived.

Over the last four years she has published "I Am Leah," a book of art and poetry now available locally and online, opened up a studio at 30 Cutler St. in Warren, has a website and was previously honored as the spotlight artist in Art Night Bristol Warren.

"I always loved art," she said. Now, teaching it "is like therapy. I'm happy when I write and paint. It all comes out and I just let it."

That release was what Ms. Koger was looking for when she first thought of Leah as a teacher last year. They'd known each other for years through family, and Ms. Koger said she always had tremendous respect for Ms. Keith's artistic ability and fearlessness. Plus, she always thought she was cool.

"This year it was really hard to find specialists for our students," Ms. Koger said. "I kept advocating and advocating, saying 'We at least need art and music.' They (administrators) said, 'If you know anybody, let us know.'"

Ms. Keith immediately came to mind, and she suggested her to district administrators.

"I thought this would be awesome for her," she said. "She's amazing, she loves kids and she loves to advocate, and help others be strong. I thought it would be awesome if they would consider it."
Word soon came back that the district was willing to let Ms. Keith work with the kids, and they put her on the payroll in November. Her tenure has been magical ever since, Ms. Koger said:

Students "absolutely love art and they love her," she said. "They want to show off what they've done; they're super proud. It's really hard for them to (be open) but definitely, their self-confidence and pride has gone up."

The same has been the case at Mt. Hope, where Ms. Keith oversees about 10 students in teacher Sabrina Sanchez's charge.

Art as therapy

Ms. Keith's weekly classes are more than a chance for students to learn traditional artistic techniques. She said Friday that her goal in teaching is to give students assignments that make them think — and challenge them to translate those thoughts onto the written or painted page.

Lessons sometimes include listening to music, and taking that time to meditate on it and try to express how it makes them feel. Another assignment was to make a collage full of images of things that inspire them. Other lessons are open-ended, asking students to express themselves when thinking of large themes like life and fulfillment.

Through it all, Ms. Keith has gotten help from her friend Stephen Alfano and her mother, Debbi Coury, with whom she shares a home on Touisset Road in Warren. While Ms. Coury helps Leah prepare her lesson plans and sometimes plays a technical role in running online meetings, it's definitely the Leah show, she said:

"They have a lot of obstacles in their way toward expressing themselves, and how to navigate their environment and stay calm," she said of her daughter's students. "Leah is really good at bringing them out."

Ms. Keith said she too has benefited from and thrives on teaching. She loves kids, loves instilling some of her knowledge and philosophy, and has a knack for bringing students around her to listen and learn. Though the next year's school budget has yet to be set, both she and Ms. Koger said they hope her lessons will continue.

"I just like being a teacher," she said. "I like hanging out with them and seeing them grow."

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.