Special Needs Inquiry: Inclusive Dance in Oakland

Outcome: Luna began a pilot dance program with two classrooms (40 children) at Tilden Elementary in 2005. Tilden is a designated inclusion school as part of the Oakland Unified School District. Over the course of five years 525 children received weekly, standards-based dance classes; over 660 classes were taught and 17 Tilden teachers participated in professional development in dance. We learned that children with and without disabilities can express themselves through the art of dance and learn to collaboratively problem-solve through movement in real time. We saw how the dance program meshed beautiful with the Universal Design for Learning principles. Children with special needs & autism were able to participate without having to shift the curriculum goals. The project was present at two national conferences in 2008: National Dance Education Organization’s in Mobile, Alabama and VSA Arts Connect All Conference in Washington DC.

Process: The project began when then principal, Joslin Johnson visited our 2005 Summer Institute then invited us to pilot a dance program at her school. After presenting a school-wide in-service, two Tilden teachers became the school’s in-house leaders and attended the full spectrum of Luna’s professional development (PD). They also received a full year of weekly model classes for their students. Each year thereafter, we added classrooms. Services included 30 weeks of standards-based dance classes with side-by-side PD; In-services and cross training for entire school community; intensive PD for participating staff; dance assemblies and family dance classes for the entire school community; and ongoing assessment and documentation. Paraprofessionals and parents were engaged throughout the process.

Challenges: In 2009, Johnson retired and the new principal, despite evidence of dance’s positive impact on learning and social interaction, was not supportive of dance learning for Tilden students. When parents and teachers demanded continuation of the program, stating that dance was foundational at Tilden, she begrudgingly agreed to let us stay on but provided no support. While we were able to raise funds to continue the project, communication and community-building efforts were thwarted at each step. We persevered because the district planned to close the school in June 2010 and we wanted to assure that children and teachers, who had come to expect dance as part of their curriculum, had the support they needed to transition to their new schools.

Impact: The Tilden project proved three things to us: 1) that all children can access their creativity using the same standards-based curriculum, so long as the teaching artists and classroom teachers collaborate and are clear about how to observe creativity in motion; 2) that dance facilitates increased expression, language development and social interaction for children with autism and other communication disabilities; 3) that dance programs require administrative support to fulfill their potential to bring learning to life in schools. As Tilden students and teachers are disbursed throughout the district in Fall 2010, they expect dance. What seemed disappointing at first, the closure of Tilden, was actually a boon for dance in the district as 17 teachers will be building dance programs at their new school sites—many with Luna support.


“It was amazing to see how my students, who normally need a significant amount of guidance and repetition, understand and expand on dance concepts. Through dance I was able to raise my expectations of what my students can do physically, due to their creativity and willingness to perform in dance class”
V. Campbell, 2007-10

“Every year I see students I have been able to express themselves through dance and to become students who learn to make choices of their own. They know it’s ok to have their own mind when it comes to dance and I think they love that freedom”.
M. Okajima, 2005-10

UPDATE: Tilden Elementary Closed its doors June 2010.  Luna is implementing the best practices developed at Tilden to build a culture of dance to the integrated student community at Thurgood Marshall Elementary in Oakland.

UPDATE 10/18/12: Thurgood Marshall Elementary closed its doors June 2011, however all Marshall teachers and most students re-located to Grass Valley Elementary.  Luna is continuing to build the inclusive dance program at Grass Valley with little glitches in transition.

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