Opinion: Berkeley schools should offer dance for PE in the lower grades

A disproportionate number of Berkeley’s highest needs kids are dancers. It makes sense to engage them in something they love at a young age to help them succeed academically.

“Dance saves lives, and tonight I’m going to tell you how it saved mine.”

-BHS Senior Winston Nguyen at the BUSD School Board Meeting 4/15/18

 Berkeley Unified School District currently has a golden opportunity to bolster our elementary school dance program, and we should take it. This is not just about dance. It’s about equity. It’s about our goals as a school district and as a community.

Our school board has been a champion of the arts for many years and, along with the community support of the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project (BSEP), we have been able to provide outstanding arts education in our schools over many decades. As a community, we have prioritized arts education — we boast a robust music program, and many of our schools have classes in visual arts, drama, dance and poetry.

Why should we now turn our attention towards dance?

First, let’s look through the lens of equity and the achievement gap. What does dance have to do with equity? As it turns out, many of our highest needs students, the kids we’re trying to reach with our 2020 Vision, are dancers.

BHS uses a tool called the Academic Support Index (ASI) to help anticipate students’ needs as they are entering high school. Quoting from the website, the ASI is “a method for providing each student with a quantitative measure of the likelihood that he or she will require additional academic support to fully realize his or her learning potential.” You can learn more about the Academic Support Index here, the gist of which is that students with higher ASI scores experience more “headwinds” or challenges in ‘doing school’.

Compelling reasons for prioritizing dance emerge when we compare the ASI scores of the general BHS student body with those of our dance students. At BHS, twice as many students with ASI scores 3+ choose dance as their elective, rather than music. A third more take dance than visual arts or theater. In fact, the percentage of kids with ASI scores 3+ in the dance department at BHS is higher than that of the school itself. This means, a disproportionate number of our highest needs kids are dancers.

What would happen if we gave these kids a way to engage with their passion at a young age? What if they were recognized for their talents and celebrated by their peers throughout their elementary years? What if dance was integrated into their other classes? If they danced the Underground Railroad? And choreographed the Solar System?

After more than 20 years of strong (albeit unstable) dance programming at half our elementary schools, we know: Kids feel good about themselves when they dance! And dancing changes their lives at school.

SO: how can we make dance happen sustainably and throughout ALL of our schools? Starting next fall, BUSD is requiring 1st – 3rd-grade classes to have PE taught twice each week by a PE specialist (not the classroom teacher). We see this as a golden opportunity: Why not offer DANCE as PE for one of those bi-weekly classes? This would bring dance to EVERY student at EVERY elementary school for three formative years.

According to California Dance Educators Association Board Member Jessy Kronenberg, there are examples throughout the state of elementary schools using dance class to satisfy required PE minutes, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Piedmont school districts. In our own Berkeley schools, dance is part of the PE curriculum at Longfellow Middle School, and students are able to elect to count dance towards PE requirements at Berkeley High. In fact, the elementary school PE standards include dance embedded in the curriculum, and well they should — dancers are athletes. Or, as pioneering choreographer Martha Graham liked to say, dancers are “the athletes of God.”

A consortium of BUSD dance teachers, current and former students, parents and community partners presented our proposal for dance grades 1-3 at the March 15 school board meeting. While the District seemed initially to like the idea, they have not pursued it.

Dance in BUSD is at a fork in the road and we need leadership with VISION. If we don’t take this opportunity now, the dance program we do have will dwindle away. Faced with the changes in scheduling and the new PE requirements, Cragmont, John Muir, Thousand Oaks, Washington and Malcolm X Elementary Schools are already looking at reducing their dance classes for next year.

If we really want to engage our highest needs kids, we need to prioritize dance as part of the fabric of our school curriculum, starting in elementary school, and with a pipeline that leads right to Berkeley High. It’s a big leap, but so worth it.

Linda Carr has taught Modern Dance at Berkeley High School since 2000.