Rediscovering the Joy in Coming to School
By Katie Rankin, Communications Specialist, Communities In Schools of Chicago
Multiplication and division. Earth systems. Narrative writing. These are some of the curriculum standards for third graders in Illinois.
Ballet folklórico, or traditional Mexican dance that emphasizes local folk culture, is not listed on Common Core Standards or Illinois Learning Standards, but it has made a huge difference in helping a group of Nixon Elementary students reengage with their learning.
Ballet folklórico began as an after-school program created by Olga Preciado, a CIS Student Supports Manager based at Nixon. Olga was looking for a way to provide more after-school options for Nixon’s early grades and tie in culturally relevant programs — Nixon’s student population is 95 percent Hispanic. What began as an extracurricular, though, has transformed into a positive outlet for students to rediscover the joy in coming to school.
Olga launched ballet folklórico in February, in collaboration with Nixon’s after-school coordinator, Ms. Gill. Olga worked on identifying students who could benefit from working with a mentor, and Nixon teachers referred students facing attendance issues. Together, they promoted the group to these students. Initially, Olga received interest from just a few students, but within a week, the group grew to 12.
Two months in, ballet folklórico is a popular and effective after-school program at Nixon. The group meets on Mondays and Wednesdays, but every day of the week, the students ask Olga excitedly, “Are we going to meet today?” It has given the students involved something they can look forward to, and it has helped them develop close relationships with their peers.
Olga begins each dance practice with a 10-minute check-in, where she provides space for students to share and listen. Then, they spend some time getting their skirts on. Ballet folklórico skirts are long and full-circle, and for ballet folklórico dancers, they are an integral part of the dance routines. Dancers pick up the ends of their skirts and move to the music, weaving their skirts gracefully and purposefully.
Olga was able to get performance skirts for the students, but the process of getting the skirts tied each practice was cumbersome. Olga needed practice skirts, too, so she reached out to Katia, CIS’s Arts Partnership Specialist, to see if she had any ideas. Katia connected Olga with Ensemble Español, a CIS community partner and theater dedicated to preserving and presenting Spanish dance. Ensemble Español was able to donate practice skirts for Nixon, to Olga’s delight and appreciation.
Now, the students can focus on practicing their steps and learning about Mexican culture. Olga takes time during each practice to infuse Mexican history and tradition into the steps — and she brings her own life experience to the sessions. Olga grew up in Mexico and has been dancing ballet folklórico since she was in elementary school. Similar to her students, ballet folklórico practice is something she looks forward to each week, something she loves doing, and something she enjoys sharing with others.
Nixon’s ballet folklórico group is already planning for a performance at the end of the year to showcase their skills with friends and family. Olga is proud of the progress the students have made, not only with their commitment to learn the routine, but with their openness and enthusiasm.
Olga says that ballet folklórico has helped the students build connection with each other, build connection with Mexican heritage, and build connection with the Nixon school community. This connection furthers CIS of Chicago’s mission of surrounding students with a community of support and empowering them to succeed in school and life.