Last Friday, Gulfshore Playhouse Education began a semester-long program at River Park Community Center. I have been particularly eager to start this program, because it is unlike any that we have undertaken so far. Like many of our STAR (Student Theatre Artists in Residence) programs, we will be meeting with these students once a week, after school, to teach them about acting and theatre.
However, this program is unique in that most of the two dozen or so students we will be working with have a wide range of physical, mental, and/or emotional disabilities. Many are from low-income households. These students range in grade level from kindergarten to high school, and all are participants in River Park’s after-school program through the City of Naples, which ensures that they will have after-school care at the community center.
Before starting this program, I met several times with the staff at the community center, and visited the after-school program to meet and observe the students. The program serves students spanning an immense spectrum of abilities, ages, and socio-economic backgrounds. I knew that this would be no small undertaking, but hopefully, an important and impactful one.
Research shows that participating in the arts can be infinitely valuable for students with disabilities in many ways, such as helping students find ways to communicate, express emotion, cultivate autonomy, engage with a community, think differently, and even succeed academically (How Students with Disabilities Learn In and Through the Arts, the Department of VSA and Accessibility at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts). Research also supports many of these findings in low-income, at-risk, and other students, with added benefits such as a heightened high school graduation rate, boosted self-esteem and confidence, and higher critical and creative thinking skills (Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement, Sandra S. Ruppert and the National Assembly of States Arts Agencies).
On Friday, when I walked into River Park Community Center, I was feeling a bit nervous about living up to the goal of making an impact on these children. Two dozen students at once? No problem for our in-school ThinkTheatre programs, but for our after-school STAR programs, that’s quite a lot. Factor in their wide range of ability, age, and experience and you’re looking at a real challenge in reaching every child in a meaningful way.
I entered the auditorium and was greeted by a joyful cacophony of students laughing, talking, running, playing catch—a counselor approached me, probably noting my slightly overwhelmed look, and explained that they were letting the children “blow off some steam” after arriving from school. I was a bit early, so I observed the students at play for a while before rounding them up to begin our program.
What followed were 90 minutes of some of the most wonderfully inspiring, surprising, and just plain fun STAR sessions I’ve experienced so far. The students were energetic, yes, but attentive and hungry to learn. They absorbed information, as the euphemism goes, like sponges. They worked together, from the littlest to the oldest, to master in minutes what takes some students hours and days to fully comprehend. Minor scuffles and squabbles inevitably broke out every now and again among the children, but with the aid of River Park’s college-aged counselors, they were quelled in moments.
And in this first session, I was thrilled to see the beginnings of the impact I hope that this program has on this vast array of students. Emotions were expressed, robustly and fully. Ideas and feelings were communicated in a variety of new ways. New information was learned and even built upon. The students thought creatively, critically, and began to take ownership of this program as they told me what they want to learn and experience. And perhaps most importantly, they worked together, across lines of age, ability, and socio-economic realities.
What will this program bring? I can’t say for sure, but I am sure that it will be an exciting and meaningful process. Stay tuned to find out!