Top Marks in Performance: Why New Highland Academy’s curriculum works

By Patricia Reedy


“The best part about dance for my students is that it has become ‘cool’ to take risks and try new things. It is no longer peer accepted to stand back and act ‘too cool’ for dance—risk taking is where it’s at.”
— E, 4th grade classroom teacher, NHA

The neighborhood surrounding 85th and A streets in East Oakland doesn’t exactly strike one as the kind of place that could set a national precedent for dance in public education. The area has a reputation for the most car jackings per square mile in the country. Yet it is home to the first elementary school in California to have full scope and sequence, standards-based dance curriculum for every child Kindergarten through 5th grade. The site of this small dance miracle is New Highland Academy, a public school opened four years ago as part of the Oakland Unified School District’s restructuring of large, failing schools. Even while California legislators wring their hands and seek ways to balance their budgets at the expense of children and families—our future—the dance program at New Highland is changing the nature of education for children and teachers in Oakland. It is also becoming a model that can expand throughout the state.

On any spring day, dance is happening at New Highland. Classroom teachers may be putting the finishing touches on an interactive display for “Parent Night,” allowing parents to lift a flap that says, “see symmetrical dance shapes here” to view their children cooperating in dance class. Fourth graders may be rehearsing their dances as they wait to board the bus to perform for the local middle school. Third graders may be putting the final touches on their year-end compositions while Ms. J’s first graders finish today’s entry in their dance journals. While Ms. M meets with dance teacher Erin to reflect on today’s lesson and plan next week’s, her fifth-grade students may be huddled around the video monitor learning the unison section of One Dance for their field trip to Union Square for National Dance Week. As with any school in high-poverty areas, there is a high attrition rate at New Highland; however, new arrivals to the school soon discover that dance is an expectation here.

There have been California State and national standards for dance for the past twenty years, yet even among experienced dance teachers, there remains confusion about what this means. Adopting standards in the dance discipline put dance on par with other arts learning, particularly music and visual art. The idea was that with standards in place, accountability for program development and implementation would follow, assuring every child the right to dance education. The standards defined dance learning for all children as developing grade-appropriate literacy in the elements of dance, creating original dances, performing, responding (comparing their own works to the works of peers and master works), understanding the historical and cultural context of their dance experiences, and making connections between dance and other aspects of life.

While the intention of the standards was clear, the actualization was still a dream due to a lack of clarity about methods of delivery, lack of financial support for the professional development, and personnel costs (fte) required to get us there. Many believed that classroom teachers would have to shoulder the burden of teaching dance among the increasing demands on their time to be experts in test preparation, teaching physical education, art and teaching diverse learners—including managing paraprofessionals in their classroom. California continued to provide funding for six- to ten-week dance residencies wherein dance artists could bring their expertise to the classroom. Yet, without adequate time, space, or clarity of goals and vision, dance teachers taught what they knew and often spent the bulk of educating time rehearsing students for a performance of the artists’ choreography. Throughout the state, including the Los Angeles Unified School District—until recently the largest employer of dance educators in the country—students were receiving some dance instruction, but without continuity or consistency they could not advance.

So, how is it that New Highland Academy, a new school situated in a tough school district—at the time still under state conservatorship—was able to pull off a full, standards-based dance curriculum where every child receives weekly articulated dance instruction for the entire year? The dance program at New Highland works because: the curriculum is child centered; the program is teacher directed; the teachers and artists work in authentic partnership with shared accountability; the project is supported by the school administration.

Child-centered curriculum in a scope and sequence articulation means that third graders can take on expansive dance learning such as investigating form and structure, phrasing, meter, measure, shape and flow because their learning is layered on three prior years of age-appropriate dance instruction. Classroom teachers and dance teaching artists receive professional development on developmentally-appropriate expectations for learning in dance. Artists are free to design lessons that interest them and use their expertise because they fully understand the principles of child development at the root of each grade level.

Programs that are teacher-directed, in partnership, work because as in any worker-owned endeavor, there is pride and power of ownership and collectivism that does not occur in top-down driven decisions. Teaching artists of all disciplines are often frustrated when they are assigned residencies in schools and the classroom teacher thwarts the arts-learning, or “checks out,” or mocks the artist for lacking classroom management skills. The dance program at New Highland works because each teacher works side-by-side each teaching artist from lesson planning through implementation and evaluation. While each respects the expertise of the other, they do not dump responsibility for management on the classroom teacher, nor dance principles on the artist. The dance teaching artist helps the classroom teacher continue the dance lesson in the classroom during the week—gaining confidence as she/he leads small bits. The classroom teacher helps the dance teacher understand why a child may be having a difficult time learning particular concepts or having a hard time cooperating on a certain day. As the year progresses, they get excited about the skills the students are using to create more interesting dances and find ways for them to showcase their talents.

From the onset of the project, New Highland has always invited professional dance companies to perform in whole-school assemblies. However, as teachers have gained confidence in their students as dancers and performers, they have been more and more willing to put time into connecting them to their community through dance. This semester alone saw many such opportunities. Fifth graders, many of whom had never been across the Bay Bridge, participated in National Dance Week’s One Dance in Union Square. Of the 19 dance groups there, New Highland dancers were the youngest, and the only who danced upside down, used contact improvisation—including lifts, scooted on their bottoms, and showed unity and contrast in their original choreography. Fourth graders took the bus across town to East Oakland School for the Arts, their local high school, and to Westlake Middle School for school tours and co-performing with teen-age dancers. The fourth-grade dancers perform for the teens and vice-versa, complete with Question & Answer sessions, and then both take a creative dance class together. Third graders performed Anna Halprin’s Planetary Dance at the school’s family art night. All students K-5 took cross campus field trips to perform for their older siblings and classmates in the New Highland Community: first to fifth, second to third, kindergarten to fourth; building a culture for dance that underscores the meaning of dance for all and dance learning as ongoing.

This project would not be possible without the administrative support of Principal Liz Ozol. Four years ago Ozol had a dream—a dream of putting the arts, including dance, at the center of the curriculum at New Highland Academy. Her methodology of creating an arts-centered school was to support the leadership of the New Highland teachers and to support the movement of the New Highland children. Ozol worked as a modern dancer, performing with dance companies in Philadelphia and San Francisco, and received a Bay Guardian Goldie Award and an Isadora Duncan (Izzie) Dance Award in the early ’90s for her choreography. Now, as a principal, Ozol puts many of those choreographic and performing skills in action to be one of the strongest new principals in Oakland Unified: she has both persistence and flexibility, she breathes before moving, she is adept at putting herself in the other person’s shoes, and she leads with clear intention.

Ozol committed five years to building this project and it took four to assure every child, grades K-5, was able to create, perform and respond at grade level. This year, with the help of Erin Sullivan, dance teaching artist at Luna Kids Dance, New Highland is piloting a student-assessment tool. The idea is to create a tool that deepens the dance learning of student and classroom teacher through reflection. While the full effect of this tool is not yet known, the fact that third grade teachers are willing to experiment with Sullivan on this project reveals their commitment to dance learning and the power of the partnership. Next year, at the end of five years, New Highland Academy’s dance program will be a fully realized model of excellence in dance learning. Schools throughout the state can see exactly how it is possible to build a community of dance learning for all children.

This article appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of In Dance.

Patricia Reedy is the Executive Director of Creativity & Pedagogy at Luna Dance Institute. A lifelong learner, she enjoys sharing her inquiry process with others.