By Diane Y. Welch
Four years ago when Mercedes Forster was a freshman at Canyon Crest Academy (CCA) she had the idea to share her passion for dance and to give back to her community by teaching dance classes to elementary school children.
It was an idea born from both an influence of a being raised in a “very giving family” and being immersed in an excellent arts program, she said. “I felt so fortunate to come to CCA where they have Envision, a brilliant arts education program and the more intense conservatory program. Then I began to think about other schools that just don’t have any funding for the arts. And I thought that I could do something to help.”
Mercedes approached her dance teacher, Rayna Stohl, dance director at CCA, about the concept. Stohl told Mercedes, “Go for it!” she said.
After the logistics were formulated and adult chaperones made available, Mercedes founded Outreach Club with Genna McGrath, Bora Yoon, Guillermo Castro and Chloe Chelf. This class enabled CCA students to take time out of the school day to teach second graders off campus.
Karen Curl – the mother of Emily Curl, a CCA dance conservatory alumni – who is a second grade teacher at Pioneer Elementary School in Escondido, agreed to take the necessary steps to secure the permissions to allow high school students to teach at the school.
The elementary school’s students are predominantly English as a second language (ESL) learners and use a program called Total Physical Response (TPR), which teaches English vocabulary in a tangible, physical way. Dance fit perfectly into this method, said Curl, and evidence shows that the students’ test scores have improved since TPR has been integrated into their curriculum.
To showcase the second graders’ new-found dance skills, a music video was shot which brought in CCA students from cinema conservatory. Used in the video is the music of Alex Kajitani, famed for his math rap videos that teach mathematic vocabulary.
When the video is completed it may be viewed on Kajitani’s website.
Curl said her students were very excited about the dance classes with the CCA students. “I saw some boys, in the beginning who were very hesitant, but as time went on they really looked forward to the sessions.”
The elementary school is in a high poverty area, said Curl, “And because dance is an art form that you can do without having a lot of money it is perfect for our kids.”
This was one of the main reasons why Mercedes chose that school. “I wanted to bring it to kids who really have no other option,” she said.
The program has been a source of deep satisfaction for Mercedes who said that she loves interacting with the students, many of whom come from stressful households. “I get a lot of joy out of thinking that I can come in for one day a week and help them have fun, relax, unwind and express who they are.”
Outreach Club will continue its partnership with Pioneer next year with Guillermo Castro as the leader. Mercedes will attend UC Berkeley in the fall, where she plans to double major in dance and biology. Madison Rhodes, Alyssa Cochran and Lissette Argoud were other CCA students who participated in the club, which is thriving.
“There is talk about it expanding to all of the art forms at CCA,” said Stohl.
The music video featuring the Pioneer Elementary School students will be online soon at www.alexkajitani.com