Gutting the Arts: Here's How NCLB Undermines Schools and How a Vigilant and Caring Community Fought to Save a Beloved Program

This story is more personal than I’d like. My 17-year old daughter has one semester left before graduation. One of her anchors in high school has been participation in the school’s dance program. That program has been a grounding influence for her. It gave her a creative outlet after she had to quit competitive Irish dance, gave her a community of friends and peers, and has been a staple of her life.

Rio Mesa High School‘s dance program is a flagship in the district. It was built by one teacher who is retiring in February after 19 years. Instead of replacing her with a dance-trained PE teacher, at first the district sought a generic PE teacher. This, despite the fact that the program is jammed with a waiting list, and is renowned throughout our area as a first-rate opportunity for students.

My daughter and I were horrified, and wanted to launch an effort to save Rio Mesa High School’s dance program. This is her letter to the district superintendent pleading with them to reconsider their search and find a teacher with dance experience and knowledge to carry the program to the next level. She wrote it, circulated it among her friends and the teachers and administrators at her school — and luckily for our community, they changed their minds and will be hiring another dance teacher to build on the existing program. But if we had simply allowed them to take their original path and satisfy minimal requirements, students like my daughter and those coming after her would’ve had far lesser choices and missed the opportunity to discover something meaningful and possibly life-changing about themselves.

NCLB’s narrowed curriculum almost cost our students wonderful opportunities. I refused to allow this school to ditch a fantastic program because they would rather hire a teacher who might have less experience and be able to come in for less money than to hire one to carry on this incredibly valuable art program. So did my daughter. We spoke up. You can too.

It takes people who care in a community to cherish the wonderful programs painstakingly and lovingly built for our kids by dedicated teachers. I’m sure if you look around, there’s something like this in your community too. Or the seeds of something like it, just waiting to be nurtured for the whole community to enjoy. Thank you to the principal and other administrators for listening.

I’ve left the names out that she suggested, because I’m not sure it’s an especially good idea to publicize people’s names without their permission. Other than that, it’s exactly as she sent it.

Oh, and the video above is from a spring RMHS dance performance in 2010. It seemed fitting for this post. It was choreographed as a tribute by a student to a relative that passed away. What class would she have had the opportunity to have expressed this in, if not dance?

Superintendent Soumakian,

My name is Kaytlin Kuns. I’m a senior at Rio Mesa High School, a member of the RMHS Dance Production class, and co-Publicist of the RMHS Dance club. I am an artist, a dancer, and an advocate for the growth and encouragement of the arts, creative and independent thinking in our school system and society as a whole. Listen to what I have to say, please.

When I was four, I was hit by a van outside my house. Physically, I recovered. Mentally, I was emotionally ravaged by the horrors of PTSD.

This is where dance began carving itself into my heart. Irish dance was my therapy. It took me in with gentle hands and molded into me self confidence, practice and determination. Dance was the the first time I began to feel obsession, dedication, hard work and perseverance blend into a dance of perfection that was always reaching for new heights. Showing me there was no limits to what I could achieve if I had the work ethic, determination and perseverance to pursue my goals and dreams.

But in 2008, due to personal conflicts during my freshman year of high school, I had to quit my external dance company.

Being forced to quit what you’re passionate about, what’s shaped you and what you’ve dedicated a huge piece of your life to is heartbreaking. I was left frustrated, struggling and with a restless energy seeking for a new outlet.

The Rio Mesa Dance Program was what saved me from my frustration, and restless energy.

For 10 years I had done Irish dance, it’s what I loved and it’s what I was passionate about; thus, when I entered the dance program knowing the richness in its diversity, I entered hesitantly and thought, “I’ll only do this until my PE requirements are filled.”

But I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with all the new opportunities and learning potentials I was given. For the first time I was learning Jazz, Hip Hop, Tap, African, Salsa and even Samba, and c’mon.. An Irish dancer doing the Samba? If you had told me that before I entered the program, I would have laughed and called you nuts.

But that’s what happened. A once close-minded, one genre dancer opened up her eyes to a whole new palette of dance..and loved it.

RMHS dance expanded my horizons, knowledge and cultural awareness. It’s a uniting force in a school with such a huge spectrum of people, personalities and diversity. It gave me confidence to reach outside of what was safe, to try and learn new things, to let lose, lead, learn, teach, encourage and embrace the world and people around me.

What once began as a class requirement has kindled into a passion, new friendships and a greater perspective about the world around me.

But this is just my story. There are so many lives who have been touched by this program, so many people who wouldn’t have had the opportunity to know dance. The things I learned as a child recovering from PTSD that have been further encouraged in RMHS Dance: self confidence, creative expression, perseverance, team work, leadership and drive, many in the Dance program wouldn’t have without being involved here at Rio Mesa.

And our program has not gone unnoticed by the community. Every year the dance program hosts a winter and spring recital and performs to a full audience, the Spring show at the Oxnard Performing Arts Theater seating over a thousand five hundred people. The money for this show is raised by us, the dancers, and our incredible director Debbie Bxxx whom after 19 years of running RMHS Dance has understandably decided it was time to retire.

However, what’s not understandable is advertising Mrs. Bxxx’s job position as a Physical Education teacher. Mrs Bxxx is a dancer. Her job is one that requires a successor with a dance background if the incredible dance program she’s established is to survive.

Unfortunately, the survival of the dance program doesn’t seem to be a high priority by our school or the district, and in that is where lies the problem.

Dance is art, and the depreciation of arts, not only in our school system, but in society as a whole is appalling. Art funding, music funding, and our dance program is being slashed without worry because the arts are labeled as “meaningless” and “basic” pieces of our education. Society as a whole cries for a resurgence of creativity, then turns around to block and label art, the manifestation of creative thinking, as “useless”..I can only imagine the chagrin of our Renaissance ancestors.

So please, listen to us. We are students, artists and dancers. We are people uniting as one voice to requesting you see our dance program with open eyes and recognize the impact it makes in our lives and our community. Please don’t echo the hypocrisy of the nation that cries for creativity and independent thinkers only to disband the few havens in our school system that foster that creative growth.

So this is my appeal to you: Please bring in a teacher such as Ms S, or Ms M, teachers educated and passionate about dance and aware of the impact it makes in the lives of the students. They have the ability to foster and encourage the artistic passion of our dancers and to keep alive the spirit of our program.

My invitation:

The dance students at Rio Mesa present:

The Evolution: Dance Then and Now

January 20, 2012. 5:30 & 7:30

I invite you to attend our production. Please see us, the dancers, unite and pull together for a production of incredible worth. See not only the evolution of dance, but the evolution of our dance program here at Rio Mesa and the importance to all involved.


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