It’s a Thursday afternoon in November. A small group of third, fourth, and fifth graders hurry over to the door of the Small Gym to welcome families for the final performance in the Haitian Dance class. This group of dedicated dancers is ready to share what they’ve practiced for nine weeks with teacher Jean Appolon. When Mr. Jean turns on the music – Jeff Pierre’s “Kongo” – every dancer transforms: it’s time to perform. A blur of movement crosses the space, and the dancers come together and swirl apart for the different stages of the performance. Students contribute their voices to the beautiful sounds as they too sing and speak, while families and guests watch, mesmerized. Refreshments and conversation follow, and the dancers exhale with the support of each other and those around them, knowing they came together to learn and engage in the process of making something beautiful.
In our pilot year, over 100 students in Grades 3–5 participated in a total of 22 enrichment offerings designed to meet diverse student interests. Throughout the year, students explored and connected through a variety of in-person classes such as Lego Engineering, Robots Need Code! and Martial Arts, and virtual classes like Fiber Arts, Yoga, and Bollywood Dance.
Our new enrichment programming grows directly out of Park’s strategic plan, which aspires to extend academic excellence beyond the classroom. After evaluating best practices of auxiliary programs across the country, and integrating feedback from families and teachers, we created a plan to build Park’s program. For this first year, we aimed to reach students in Grades 3-5 as our starting point and grow from there. Fall programs were well-received, with three waitlists for five classes, and in the winter we offered more classes to more students, which were met with similar enthusiasm. We were very encouraged to see how the program strengthened as the year went on – perhaps most significantly in the difficult months of this unique spring.
This March, as it became clear that school would not be operating as usual, we forged ahead in envisioning how to translate our emerging program into yet another pilot: a virtual enrichment program. Turning to the creative expression, curiosity and joy for learning I cultivated as a Park student, we converted five classes into remote experiences, and, in May, offered two additional classes as a way to provide support and engagement for our families.
During these last months of virtual programming, as in the in-person ones, the clarity of the enrichment program’s vision came into full focus: the need for community building, student-centered exploration and diverse interests has never been more evident. In a recent survey, more than ten families who participated in these enrichment classes commented on the benefit of learning with friends in an extracurricular setting at Park. One family indicated that their child’s favorite parts of the enrichment experience this year included having “the option to stay at school with peers, mix with students from different grades, meet different teachers and be exposed to topics he wouldn’t otherwise learn in school or outside school.”
This spring’s enrichment programming concluded in early June. As I watched the closing virtual Bollywood Dance performance, and welcomed the teachers and families of the dancers who joined, I was most struck by what the dancers themselves had to say both before and during their performance — through their voices, as well as their individual and collective physical artistic expression. Although this final celebration did not take place in the Small Gym, the excitement the dancers felt for their performance and the collaborative process was just like that afternoon of Haitian Dance in November. After introducing each other, their teacher, and the dance, the students moved in unison to share what they had learned as individuals and as a community, and created something beautiful.