Wednesday, August 29, 2012

West County Community High School

Well, now that it's over it's (past) time to write about my experience at WCCHS. This was a little tiny (just over 100 students) charter high school in Richmond, serving a low-income community as well as a lot of kids who had trouble making it in big comprehensive high schools. I was only there for one semester — just long enough to meet some remarkable students who were able to do some beautiful work.

I got the position there — just one dance class, three afternoons a week, with nine lovely students (most first-year but I believe some of the seniors had taken the class in a previous year) — through my colleague Jochelle, who recommended me to the administration when she moved on to a full time job. At the time (last January), I was feeling so overwhelmed with learning to teach visual art (even half-time) that I was almost reluctant to take on anything new, limited though it might be — but my husband convinced me that I should, and I am now very grateful that I did.

Since Jochelle had been doing a lot of creative movement with them through the fall semester, they were already well warmed up for me when I came in the spring. I knew this class would be different the very first day, when I tried a short exploration — in my experience, typical teenage first-year students would stare at me as if I was crazy if I asked them to do anything improvisational ("I can't dance, you haven't taught me any steps yet!"). So as I often do, I started with an exploration based on concrete images (move or dance as if you've just found a $100 bill… as if you've just broken up with your boyfriend/girlfriend… moving against a strong wind… through sticky mud… across a high narrow bridge with no handrail…), then moved into a basic freeze dance focused on all the elements, just to see where they were — and they all dove in with the teen-dancer equivalent of wild abandon! … some varying degrees of engagement, of course, but all nine were dancing (no big attempts at strolling and chatting), and some were discovering a remarkable range of movement.

As we went along through the weeks, the class as a whole was wide open to whatever I wanted to try with them. Usually teens are so self-conscious ("ohmigod, I might do something dumb and someone might be looking at me!"), but many of these students (especially those seniors) kept on experimenting with their movement and further expanding their range… I could only guess that the support they received from the small school environment enabled them to feel comfortable working around each other. Some of these kids were so mature and open that I was able to collaborate with them as I rarely had with any students… but that's a pretty long story, so it will be in the next post (soon!).

So now, WCCHS is no more — the charter was up for renewal in June and the district denied it (because of low test scores would be a good guess). After being up in the air all summer as the school appealed to the county school board, the decision came down just a couple of weeks ago — no charter renewal, school closing down… I have so often heard of for-profit charters picking and choosing their students, or kicking out the ones who have trouble because they don't "fit with the program." This one little nonprofit actively pulled in students who were having trouble elsewhere (and probably tested badly because of it), nurtured them and helped them to find their way... and then got shut down. (sigh)… I suppose that's life in education in this day and age...

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