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Hunt Award honors Kiski Area art teacher

| Thursday, May 24, 2001

Learning disabilities didn't stop Connie Blair of Westmoreland County from becoming an award-winning educator.

'I had trouble with reading and math,' recalls Blair, 47, who fared much better with art.

'(Art) was something I liked doing, because I could succeed at that,' she says. 'That motivated me to work hard in my other classes, because I knew I wanted to be a teacher.'

On Wednesday, Blair received the third annual Roy A. Hunt Foundation Award for Excellence in Teaching at the Frick Art & Historical Center, Point Breeze.

'I was always a kid that was sitting on the floor, creating different things,' says Blair, a popular art teacher at Kiski Area Intermediate School in Allegheny Township.

About 40 of Blair's best pupils cheered Wednesday as Blair accepted her prize from Tom Hilliard, president of the board of the local Frick museum, and Tod Hunt Jr., grandson of Roy A. Hunt.

Other guests included Blair's parents, Jack and Eleanor Blair of Washington Township; daughter Tiffany Boarts, an engineering student at Case Western Reserve University; plus Syble Wasilowski, co-sponsor of Blair's student art club at Kiski Area Intermediate School.

The award recognizes Blair's 'efforts on behalf of her students and her devotion to helping them learn about worlds existing beyond their own.'

The award also includes a $3,000 purse for her school, to help fund art-related field trips to places such as the Frick Museum.

'I'm constantly looking for money to fund these trips,' says Blair, a graduate of Edinboro State College.

When Blair's lackluster high school grades and test scores threatened her admission to college, Blair's own seventh-grade teacher helped Blair prepare an impressive portfolio of art projects. That portfolio gained Blair's entry to Edinboro, where she often made the dean's list.

Fresh out of college, Blair joined the faculty of Kiski Area School District, her employer since 1975.

'She has a lot of ideas,' says eighth-grader Cheyenne Jackson, one of 40 students in Blair's art club at Kiski Area Intermediate School. 'Her art projects are interesting. They're different. It's not just 'grab a piece of paper and draw.' ''

Blair's pupils also appreciate that Blair, a single mom, devotes much of her free time to planning field trips, applying for grants and organizing art-related school projects.

'I feel bad. She doesn't have another life,' says Jennifer Beresky, another member of Blair's art club.

Blair taught in the Kiski Area elementary schools for 22 years before transferring to Kiski Area Intermediate School. She currently teaches about 400 seventh-graders.

'Some of these students I've had since first grade,' Blair says.

Among her accomplishments, Blair shaped her school district's art curriculum for elementary students and initiated its fourth-graders' annual field trip to the Carnegie Museum of Art, Oakland.

After arriving at Kiski Area Intermediate School, Blair launched an art club for eighth-graders, an artist-in-residence program and started her tradition of annually assembling bound portfolios of her students' work.

'I save every single piece of paper they do,' Blair says. 'Every art work they do. Every test. Every worksheet. ... And we create these bound scrapbooks.'

Last year, Blair took art club members to four museums in New York City. Next month, club members will visit museums in Chicago.

Blair annually plans such trips to motivate students, because she limits participation to students who earn all A's in seventh grade.

Her classroom features two kilns, plus a lot of table and cupboard space.

'The kids are excited to be there,' says ceramist Laura McLaughlin of O'Hara, who annually visits Blair's classroom. 'She's done so much on her own time to make the experience interesting for the kids. She's really taken them under her wing. ... She's very organized.'

Deborah Deasy can be reached at (412) 320-7989 or .

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