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Using dancers’ discipline as leaping off point for academics

May 21, 2014 at 6:45 PM EST
The National Dance Institute of New Mexico aims to instill in young people the lessons of success through lessons in dance: hard work, perseverance and health. This year, NDI taught nearly 8,000 students — a majority from low-income families — across the state, and academic performance has improved across the board. Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery reports.
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This story and PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: The Obama administration has used part of this week to showcase arts and education, making the case that exposure to dance, music and other expressions can improve student achievement.

Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery profiles a dance program in New Mexico that’s done just that in and out of the classroom. It’s part of our American Graduate series, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

MAN: And over the top.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The warmup, the makeup, the proud parents streaming in, it looks like the usual end-of-the-year recital, but this one is a little different.

It’s the culmination of a year’s work at the National Dance Institute of New Mexico, a program that aims to engage and motivate children to strive for excellence using the arts; 74 percent of the dancers come from low-income families; 85 percent are either Hispanic or Native American.

Catherine Oppenheimer is the program’s founding artistic director.

CATHERINE OPPENHEIMER, Founding Artistic Director, National Dance Institute of New Mexico: We really target the schools and communities that need our programs the most, so that means high poverty, rural, isolated, the cities, too, but kids who wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to experience this kind of program.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Oppenheimer once performed with the New York City Ballet and with legendary classic dancer Jacques d’Amboise.

In 1976, he started the National Dance Institute in New York to expose inner-city children to ballet. He convinced Oppenheimer to teach and eventually to bring the program to New Mexico. NDI New Mexico, as it’s known, offered lessons this past year to nearly 8,000 children in more than 80 public schools across the state.

WOMAN: This is the perfect counted eight. She’s smiling. Her hands are out.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Fourth and fifth graders are taught during the school day. After school, there are lessons for older, more advanced dancers, as well as preschoolers. Most classes are free of charge to students and no one is turned away because his or her family can’t pay.

It costs about $5 million a year to run the organization. Some of that money is raised at galas like this one in Santa Fe. Support comes from foundations, local businesses and individual donors.

Executive director Russell Baker explains the mission.

RUSSELL BAKER, Executive Director, National Dance Institute of New Mexico: We believe that it takes energy and effort to do something with excellence, so what we teach, we call the core four, work hard, do your best, never give up, and be healthy.

We think, if you do those things, whether you’re learning a dance step, taking a math test or applying for a job, that’s what it takes to be successful.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: This year’s review for Santa Fe area schools is called Broadway Bound. It celebrates the magic of musicals and showcases 500 children on one stage. Along the way, it weaves in some life lessons about perseverance and teamwork. One scene recognizes each and every dancer.

CATHERINE OPPENHEIMER: What we say to kids is that there’s this big spotlight and the light is shining and it’s shining right in the center of the stage, and it’s their moment to go jump and fly through that spotlight.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Thirteen-year-old seventh grader Laura Balderrama beams when she describes that moment.

LAURA BALDERRAMA: When each person gets the shot in the spotlight where you can like just show off and then just let everybody looking to you, and then it’s like just awesome.

If feels like you’re shining out, like letting all your energy out and then like making people smile. And it’s pretty cool.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The quest for excellence goes beyond the foot lights. New Mexico’s schools get low grades on national ratings, and in 2013 the state ranked dead last in a study that measured the educational, economic, social, and physical well-being of children.

But NDI students are raising the bar, with higher test scores in reading, science and math, and improved fitness. Those were the findings of an independent study commissioned by the organization comparing fourth through seventh graders within the same school district.

Sixteen-year-old Emery Chacon is a case in point. He’s been dancing since fourth grade. He lives with his grandfather, a retired auto mechanic, who also cares, sometimes, for Emery’s 3-year-old niece.

DANNY PAYNE: He’s learned through the dance, you know, there’s rules you have to abide by. So I think that’s helped him, you know, and it will help him through life when he does get a job and starts working. He knows that they expect his full attention and his devotion to whatever profession he decides to get into.

EMERY CHACON: Yes, my grades before, they were moderate, from C’s to — like C’s and D’s, but now, actually, with NDI, it’s actually improved to B’s and A’s in most of my classes.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Santa Fe High School English teacher Davida Garcia described the impact she’s seen in the classroom.

DAVIDA GARCIA, English Teacher, Santa Fe High School: Confidence, expression, participation in class discussions, critically thinking about characters in the plays and how they interact, and then writing about it.

And he feels really confident to stand up and read out loud and to expect his feelings, with is a tough kid for kids in ninth grade.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The graduation rate at Santa Fe High is only 62 percent, below the state average, which, in turn, is one of the lowest in the nation.

MAYOR JAVIER GONZALES, Santa Fe, New Mexico: You guys are good.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Santa Fe’s mayor thinks programs like this one will help stem the dropout crisis.

JAVIER GONZALES: We know that the more kids are exposed the arts, the greater an opportunity they have to stay in school, and we know if they stay in school, they are going to graduate. Equally important, they open up their mind. Science, technology, engineering, and math is important, but we need to add arts to that, and when we add it, we create a citizen prepared to meet the world.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Back on stage, the cast includes more than just kids. At one point, classroom teachers and a handful of parents join in. Among them was Laura’s dad, who immigrated from Mexico 12 years ago.

JAVIER BALDERRAMA (through interpreter): Really, it’s very exciting to see people applaud you. It makes you feel like you did a good job. I don’t know how to say it, but it’s really that, for me, it’s very gratifying to be here, and it makes me feel very, very good.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Also in the company are some city of Santa Fe firefighters, who know how to boogie.

CARLOS NAVA, Captain, Santa Fe Fire Department: Firefighters are heroes, and so we have six heroes performing with kids. Kids are looking up to these men and women, and they’re big and they’re strong and these are young people that want to grow up and be big and strong and do something important. It’s powerful.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Captain Carlos Nava got the bug for dancing from his daughters.

CARLOS NAVA: They know what a commitment is now, because the time they put into this and the hard work they put into this, they know what it’s like to really commit to something.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Nava, like most parents of these children, said he couldn’t afford tuition at a private dance academy.

As the program celebrates its 20th anniversary, a few students have made it to bigger stages as professional dancers. But that’s not the ultimate goal.

RUSSELL BAKER: Whether or not they’re bound for Broadway, we don’t know, but the idea is, be bound for something. Figure out what that is and work hard and do your best and don’t give up until you get there.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: And that’s a lesson that will stick with these young dancers long after the applause dies down and the curtain closes.

GWEN IFILL: We have more from the dancers online, where you can see their rendition of “Fabulous Feet” from the musical “The Tap Dance Kid.”