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P.S. 372, The Children’s School
United States
New York City
New York
Brooklyn, NY
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At Park Slope's P.S. 372 Dance Is All Inclusive

by Bonnie Rosenstock
September 8, 2009
P.S. 372, The Children’s School
512 Carroll Street
(between 3rd and 4th Avenues), Park Slope
Principal: Arthur Mattia.
Brooklyn, NY 11215
718-624-5271
With the new school year up and running, Sandi Stratton Gonzalez is looking forward to having her charges up and dancing. Gonzalez is an involved, energetic dance educator who is teaching the next and youngest generation to love dance. She works at P.S. 372, The Children's School, in Park Slope, which is an inclusion school. Founded in 1992 on the Collaborative Team Teaching model, it is the only elementary school, pre-K to 5th grade, where every class at all grade levels is comprised of general education and special education students.

"It's something of a national model," said Gonzalez. "We are no longer the only fully inclusive school in New York City because it's a big movement now in education. But we are the only one with a dual district model. Therefore, we get more financial support than any other school because we have the budget line from two districts, local District 15 and the citywide District 75, which manages special education programs."

Admission is by lottery, which takes place in kindergarten. The school, situated in a former parochial school, tops at around 550 students. The ethnic make up is 50% white, 20% Hispanic, 15-20% African-American and 5% Asian and other, estimated Gonzalez. "There are many bi-racial kids in the community, many who have two mommies or daddies, many adopted. It's an active and well-heeled P.T.A."

With two certified teachers and one paraprofessional per class of twenty-five students maximum (except pre-K, max eighteen), it has one of the best student-teacher ratios in public education. Each class has up to ten students with individualized education plans (IEPs). "We serve a wide range of special needs: autism, Asperger's syndrome, ADD, ADHD, various learning disabilities, the hearing impaired, the emotionally challenged, but not so many physically challenged because we are not barrier free. There are a lot of stairs, no elevator and it's up and down two buildings and through a courtyard," she said.

It also boasts two visual arts teachers (painting, sculpture, clay, charcoal, etc.), a technology coordinator who collaborates on filmmaking with the music teacher, who has a theater background, and Gonzalez, the dance specialist. Gonzalez, a former dancer, choreographer and dance company founder, teaches creative dance to all the grade levels and sees her groups once a week for approximately one hour. There are twenty classes in the school, twenty periods a week and another four to five periods of elective programs.

Her approach to creative dance is based on elements of movement, heavily influenced by Laban Movement Analysis. "While I teach some folkloric dance, modern jazz, hip-hop and some lessons in ballet as a style of dance, my sequential curriculum is built around the elements of dance and building the children's capacity as dancemakers and improvisers," she said. "One of my goals is to provide enough exposure to technical vocabulary so that my fifth graders can audition for middle school placement in a dance program should they want to focus more intensely on dance. But it's not a studio or conservatory model."

Contractually, her job is to cover the preparation of the classroom teacher. However, because they are not in the same room together, the capacity to integrate the work is somewhat limited. But with over thirty years' experience teaching in various settings and ten years at this school, she readily uses her special interest in social studies as a jumping off point for dance-related connections. For example, every fall she prepares a Mexican celebration with her third graders, who study a unit on Mexico from September to December. Each third grade class learns a different Mexican dance, and parents are invited to attend the festivities.

Fourth grade is very social studies aligned, noted Gonzalez. When they study early America, the explorers to the Civil War, Gonzalez' dance class studies Native American dance, early black dance and English country dance. In October, Louis Mofsie, founding director of Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, their cultural partner, and one of the dancers come to her class or the grade level teachers' class to teach the robin dance and the grass dance, and Mofsie tells a folktale. They do two or three workshops with the kids, who then travel to the College of Staten Island to see Thunderbird perform. "I rehearse the dances they have learned, and they can also create their own dance inspired by elements in them," she said.

Mickey Davidson, an expert in early black dance, teaches Juba, a plantation dance. "Elements of Juba show up later in the Charleston," said Gonzalez. "I often choreograph a Charleston for them to perform, or I might choreograph a jazz dance and move it along into the early 20th century. We look at the historical development of black dance in America and make connections into hip-hop."

The music educator, Michael O'Neill, who teaches a general music class which includes music literacy (reading music), vocals, resonator bells and recorder, is her team teaching partner. As a "Broadway baby," he understands men's dance protocol. As a former competitor in country dance, his expertise enhances the unit on early American dance. "The decision was made to hire a music educator instead of another dance educator, so students get a broader experience in the arts. Michael was a great choice."

With the little ones, Gonzalez takes a more multi-disciplinary approach. Kindergarten is singing, moving, drawing, acting out stories. "It is creative dance, but also creative drama," she said.

Gonzalez also runs a couple of dance clubs for fourth and fifth graders. Over the years she has offered salsa, percussion, choreography and modern dance. "One of the opportunities that the club presents is that everybody enjoys being together because they all enjoy dancing. Unlike, say mathematics, where they are grouped by ability, here they are all equal. It is truly inclusive."

The dance curriculum is based on New York City Department of Education guidelines, "Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in Dance, Pre-K-12," available online to download or order. Gonzalez co-authored (with Diane Duggan and Catherine Gallant), "Dance Education for Diverse Learners," a special education supplement for the Blueprint, which specifically addresses working with special needs, published in May 2009.

Gonzalez acknowledged that there are always management challenges in every classroom no matter what the discipline and whether or not there are special needs kids in the room. However, sometimes there are more challenges, of a more intense range. For example, children with autism have trouble with social skills, making eye contact, doing collaborative work and reading other people's body language. "I need to support that child's participation in a very careful and explicit way," she explained. "I might do small group work to facilitate communication. Mirroring [two or more people imitating each other's movements] is an accessible activity that supports communication but doesn't require communication. It's all about accommodation and acceptance."
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