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Expanding possibilities for students with The Wooden Floor, a New York Life Foundation Aim High grantee

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Expanding possibilities for students with The Wooden Floor, a New York Life Foundation Aim High grantee

In a follow-up conversation with 2021 New York Life Foundation Aim High grantee The Wooden Floor, we spoke with Chief Executive Officer Dawn S. Reese to discuss more on how the Aim High grant has continued to support the program in the past year and what she is seeing among youth today. Read our blog from the initial interview here. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Our word of the year for 2022 is “possibilities.” That word has been constantly germinating within all of us all the time. Having a hopeful and optimistic attitude about our future for the students we serve helps keep us optimistic. – Dawn S. Reese

What do your program offerings look like currently?

In the first month of the pandemic, we created four pillars of the organization’s virtual curriculum design – techno-literacy, creativity, connection, and health/wellness – to frame our dance education program online, and wrap-around services. Now, we continue those pillars even in our current hybrid model. Since September 2021, all of our dance education classes have been in-person, but our wrap-around services: academic tutoring, college and career readiness, mentoring and family services have remained virtual.

What are you seeing in regards to the supports youth need right now? How have you adapted programming to incorporate these supports?

I chair a youth mental health taskforce in Santa Ana, California, and during the pandemic, we saw high rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation coming from students because they were isolated at home and disconnected from their schools, mentors, and friends.

What we have been focusing on here at The Wooden Floor is making sure that every student feels connected. Someone in their life is checking on them every step of the way. Every student has an academic advisor, a dance faculty member, or support services staff member who they know, and who knows them.

This summer, we have been doing more in-person programming based on focus groups and surveys from students and parents. Even though we have a strong connection with our families, these surveys are a great barometer. Resoundingly, families wanted their kids to be back in-person. We are now making plans for fall 2022 to have all programming in-person, with the exception of a few case-by-case opportunities for those who may want to have programming virtually. We like having that option of flexibility for our students, and families.

We learned through these surveys that our middle school and high school students were asking for more flexibility in programming. Now, we are going to offer two classes for level one students (for beginning students), and three-classes for levels two through ten. This [shift in number of classes] is something we learned during the pandemic that makes a big difference in attendance, especially for middle- and high-school students who need the extra support towards their goals for their college preparatory pathway, internships, and extracurricular activities they may require as they build their college resumes. Additionally, during the pandemic, we have had high retention in our [middle school] grade classes which means in the future we will have higher high school graduating class sizes, ideally. Since 2005, 100 percent of The Wooden Floor of the seniors who have graduated have enrolled in higher education.

How has the Aim High grant continued to support your program?

New York Life’s Aim High program has been a significant partner in the work that we do, especially during the pandemic and tying into our four pillars. We have been focusing on the combination of social, emotional, and academic wellness, and when the Aim High grant came in, it continued to support those efforts. We've always integrated those areas, using dance as the center for student transformation. Now, we’ve doubled down on the third pillar of connection, which includes those wrap-around services, family resources, and college readiness. The Aim High grant has helped us focus on our students’ social, emotional, and academic wellness. This grant supports our Next Step program, our advisement program where we help those students envision their future from 6th to 12th grade. In the pandemic, a lot of the focus has been on “today,” but we also want to assure the students that “this too shall pass,” and they will be able to achieve their future dreams in ten years from now and see themselves beyond the pandemic.

Our academic advisors are really there to listen, and while it may appear to be academic-centered discussions, it’s really listening to the students and asking: How are you doing? How are you weathering the pandemic? How is your home life? Is there anything we can do for you? Because maybe no one else is asking them.

What results have you seen from your increase in supports and expanded programming?

One of our barometers for students is GPA, and we have seen that our on-campus GPA has maintained at 3.1. However at the beginning of the pandemic, we saw a big drop in our GPA for about 60 students out of the 475 we serve. The Aim High grant supported our remediation efforts, and helped our students get better grades, especially our middle school students. We analyze their report cards, we assign them a tutor based on their academic needs, and we help them see that bigger vision for themselves to overcome these challenges. We are also tracking reading and math literacy, and compared to county and state numbers, our students are exceeding those 2020 benchmarks for 3rd, 5th and 8th grade.

What are some takeaways from your efforts serving middle school youth during the pandemic?

During that time, the biggest thing we learned was that despite the challenges they faced during the pandemic and remote-learning, having The Wooden Floor in their life has helped them learn how to become resilient. [These experiences] showed us the determination we have for these students, and the determination they have for themselves. For the 18th year in a row, we had a 100 percent graduation rate and enrollment in higher education. Since 2005, 55 percent of our alumni hold a bachelors or master’s degree, compared to around 12 percent of their peers.

The beauty of our program model is that we see our students through that journey and those transitions from elementary, middle to high school. The Next Step Program and Empowerment Programs helps students and families navigate those subject matters like managing time, managing new teachers, and preparing for the rigor of middle school.

How have you partnered with your school district to expand your programming?

For 25 years, we have held Dance Free Week. We go into elementary school sites three weeks prior to our Annual Auditions which is usually the third Saturday of October. We are only there at each school site for one to three weeks, and we see around 2,800 to 3,000 students in those three weeks. Teachers report dramatic changes in those students who participate in this program. We are in the process of thinking about how we could potentially expand Dance Free Weeks into a year-round program. We are talking to the district leaders in the Santa Ana Unified School District. They have been a real proponent during the pandemic of helping us get the word out to principals. We work with the principals at each school. The district itself has been helping us push information out about the programming. Over half of our students that join The Wooden Floor participate in Dance Free Weeks. Right now we are in the school districts of: Santa Ana, Orange, Garden Grove, and Anaheim. We are piloting an idea to create a one-week, three-week, six-week and twelve-week in-school, year-round program.

We are getting ready for our 40th anniversary next year. It is a huge milestone for our organization. We are really rooted in our community here in Santa Ana, we have two locations now. Over the next few years, we are looking into how we can expand our impact even more locally, and nationally through our licensed partnership model.

What is your advice for a program looking to build partnerships with their school districts or community providers?

It is all about relationship-building. Take the time to get to know the key people in your district and make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. When you’re looking at partnerships and potential opportunities, my advice is to make sure you’re clear on the “who” and “why.” Why are you trying to build these partnerships and who can help you implement your strategies? Be flexible, especially with districts. Try to think about how your programmatic initiative could be helpful to the district, and vice versa. It is important to build a win-win and know how will this [partnership] affect each other’s resources, staffing, and time.

Read our blog from the initial interview here.

Learn about the New York Life Foundation Aim High grant program and find updates on the next Aim High grant competition.

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BY: Tierra Easter      01/25/22

Afterschool as a teacher pathway

By Sam Piha, founder and co-director of Temescal Associates and The How Kids Learn Foundation, both organizations dedicated to promoting the learning and healthy development of youth. Our national teacher shortage predated COVID-19, however there is growing evidence that suggests that the...

BY: Guest Blogger      01/20/22