Echo Park school teaches students through dance

Gabriella Charter School in Echo Park touts itself as a “dance-themed” school.  But how is dance used as a teaching tool?   Becky Kopenhaver went to Gabriella to find out.

By Becky Koppenhaver

A recent visit to Gabriella Charter School last week gave me a chance to see students in action. The second graders in teacher Chippy Zuniga’s choreography class had just finished their morning stretch and were sitting quietly while Ms. Chippy, as she is referred to by students, wrote the word “ACTION” in bold letters on the board in front of them. After explaining what an action word was, Zuniga then asked students to come up with their own action words. Then, working in groups of three, the kids demonstrated their own interpretation of action words by moving their bodies in rhythm to the beat of Zuniga’s drum.

The morning lesson that I had arrived in time to witness was a prime example of something I had been curious about since I first heard of the school:  How does a charter school with a focus on dance  integrate an art form into a strong academics program?

According to school director, Liza Bercovici, the school uses the focus, discipline and creativity of dance to stimulate students in other areas. “The school is academically structured and emphasizes high expectations,” she says, “but dance integration into the curriculum is also a primary focal point.”

Bercovici says that she and Zuniga, who received her master’s degree in Dance Education from New York University, are working with the school’s teachers on new ways of accomplishing this integration of art and academics. She says that, fortunately, the young, energetic teaching staff  is eager to try new progressive approaches to learning.

“It’s all about making the connection between movement and words,” says Zuniga, who is also co-coordinator of curriculum. All students, K through 7, receive at least one hour a day of dance instruction. By next year, the school will add an eight grade class.

Gabriella, which occupies part of the  Logan Street Elementary school campus, is currently in its second year.Parents must apply and then be chosen by a yearly lottery to gain admittance. As with most charter schools in Los Angeles,  there are always more applicants than open positions, Bervovici said.  Although the student body consists mainly of low-income Latino students, there is a large mix of Korean, Filipino, and Anglo students that represent the changing demographics of the area as well.

Bercovici said that for the majority of students at Gabriella Charter, dance is an added benefit to a strong academic education. The school boasts an 874 API for 2009-2010, and was described by Los Angeles Magazine, as “one of 60 great elementary schools you should know about.”

“Most parents apply to the school just wanting a better alternative for their child, but then they see the benefits,” Bercovici said.  “It’s something that a lot of children would not normally be exposed to.”

Becky Koppenhaver is a freelance writer covering schools. You can send Becky story tips and ideas at becky@theEastsiderLA.com

Photos by Ana Homonnay/Stuart Foundation

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