Art Room Fixture Billie Ambrose Calls It a Career in Barnegat
Fresh out of college, art teacher Billie Ambrose was among the charter faculty members when the Lillian Dunfee Elementary School opened in Barnegat Township in September 1975. It was a job she never relinquished until the end of February, when she retired from the position after nearly 42 years.
A 1971 graduate of Freehold High School, Ambrose was initially interested in art history in college. However, it turned out the best option for that field of study was to go to school in New York City, something she wasn’t very comfortable with. So she enrolled at Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) and received a bachelor’s degree in art education. In looking for teaching jobs, she found openings were tough to come by.
“But at Barnegat, they were building a new school, so I thought I’d apply there,” she said. “I got the job while the school was still being built.”
In the beginning, Ambrose split time between Dunfee and the Elizabeth Edwards Elementary School, which at that time were the only public school buildings in the township. Edwards is now closed.
“Barnegat’s school population was growing very fast,” she recalled. “We had split sessions, so I had a group of students in the morning and the afternoon. Sometimes I didn’t have my own classroom, so I had my ‘art on a cart,’ going from room to room.”
Ambrose said that while some school subjects have to undergo periodic updates, basic art education has changed little since her career started.
“It’s all about creativity, and working on a project as best you can,” she said. “It’s not a matter of right or wrong. What’s most important is that you tried.”
Ambrose said that during the year, students will explore water coloring, drawing, pottery, collages and other media.
“I’ve got a kiln in classroom,” she said. “I also like to talk about art history. I especially love impressionism.”
Dunfee Principal Kathy Makela has known Ambrose since 1981 when she joined the Dunfee staff as a first-grade teacher.
“I always admired her passion and dedication,” said Makela, principal since 2006. “And Billie is always trying to further her own education and still has a willingness to learn. She attends special conferences and seminars to look for new methods and strategies.”
Ambrose said one of the newer approaches is “Makerspace,” where children are given numerous supplies and instructed to create something.
“For instance, they could be given tape, glue, a paper towel and cardboard and build whatever they want,” she said. “It’s a way to challenge your creative abilities.”
On back-to-school nights, Ambrose would often meet up with parents who were former students of hers.
“The person who will be succeeding me, Tara Larsen, was one of my students, and so was our PTA president, Jennifer Sarapoulos.” said Ambrose. “But what really touched me was some parents tell me that their daughters are professional graphic designers and that I helped inspire them to pursue a career in art.”
Here are some sample comments from current students.
Brielle Lavalle, age 10: “Mrs. Ambrose has helped me to become an artist. I want to pursue an art degree because of her!”
Colin Redpath, age 10: “She has encouraged me to be a better artist and to try harder.”
Trinity Devall, age 11: “I love how she is always artistic. I love doing clay projects with her. She’s simply the best!”
Juan Martinez, age 10: “Mrs. Ambrose is so creative, she is working on a cool dragon mosaic.”
The mosaic, which is placed inside the main entrance, depicts the school mascot, the Dunfee Dragon. The tiles were donated by Barnegat Bay Tile in Waretown.
“We’ve been working on this since the beginning of the year,” said Ambrose. “I wanted this project to be a parting gift to show my appreciation.”
With her new-found leisure time, Ambrose said she looks to become active with area art associations.
“I’ll take trips to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and other museums,” she said. “Now I’ll be able to do things on my schedule, and I haven’t done that in a very long time.”
— Eric Englund