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April 24, 2014

ARTFULLY WON: Greater Clark's Cathy Gruninger receives WHAS ExCel Award

JEFFERSONVILLE — In her first five years as a teacher, starting out in Wisconsin, Cathy Gruninger acquired teaching licenses in five states. Her first two jobs didn’t give her a room, but had her pushing a cart around to classrooms to teach art.

After spending the last 24 years at Greater Clark County Schools, Gruninger was recognized as the district’s WHAS ExCel Award winner and employee of the year on Thursday.

And after 24 years, she still likes the simple things — like finger-painting.

“How often do we go through a day where we don’t get to get our hands messy? I just feel like sometimes it’s so therapeutic to put your fingers in the fingerprint,” Gruninger said. “I always tell my teacher aids or adults that they’re never too old to do finger-painting, work with clay or do other things. In today’s day and age, there’s so much pressure with computers, typing things, it’s just not as sensory. I feel it’s really important for us to get in touch with our senses and art does that for us.”

Andrew Melin, superintendent, said Gruninger’s dedication and love of her craft show in her students every day.

“Cathy tells her students on the first day of school that she does not allow them to use ‘I can’t’,” Melin said. "I can’t are two words that should not be in anyone’s vocabulary because everyone can.”

A native cheesehead and Green Bay Packers loyal, Gruninger said she loves the work she does because she’s got a lot of freedom in what she teaches.

“There are so many directions you can go in art. One day, we’re painting, the next we’re starting a mask and a week later, we’ll start a clay project,” Gruninger said. “There are just so many things you can do with art.”

But her colleagues noted her dedication as another reason why she deserved the award. Dawn Spyker, art teacher at River Valley Middle School and another winner of the ExCel Award, said with every group of students who come from Gruninger tell her how awesome of a teacher Mrs. G was.

“I think you’re authentic,” Spyker said. “Everything you do comes from the heart, from the art projects you develop to encouraging your students to push themselves further each and every day.”

Spyker said she knows Gruninger collects and cuts out Box Tops for Education — which has helped give teachers extra classroom funds since 1996 — like it’s her second job.

Since the program began, Gruninger said she’s bolstered her classroom’s art supplies with an extra $90,000 collected from the Box Tops program.

But she’s getting a boost along with the award’s golden apple. Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities gave her $1,000 to use in her classroom.

Gabrielle Taylor is a fourth-grader at Bridgepoint. After learning from Gruninger for five years, she said she’s learned lessons she’ll carry for the rest of her life.

“She’s just so spontaneous and really encourages us to be ourselves,” Taylor said. “I’ve learned that art is just like, expressing yourself and that you shouldn’t act like you’re somebody else.”

Gruninger said in her tenure, she’s had her share of battles with the district in maintaining the prominence of art education in Greater Clark. She said about 10 years ago, it tried to cut down art instruction to 30 minutes instead of 45. After voicing her opinion, she’s not sure she was the deciding factor, but it didn’t cut class time further.

She also said she’d like to see more certified art teachers in buildings and see the practice of replacing retiring certified teachers with uncertified replacements.

As the focus on language arts, math, science and social studies persists in statewide testing and education initiatives in districts, Gruninger said it’s important to keep art education robust because it permeates all of those subjects.

“I feel like art uses so many of those things,” Gruninger said. “It uses sciences, we talk about plants, space, animals. We use science all the time. We talk about math, symmetry and so many math skills. It’s important that they have those skills, but we do go over it quite a bit in the classroom.”

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