Among the dozens of local offices and organizations who have partnered with the City of Springfield’s Zone Blitz Initiative are arts organizations—the Springfield Art Museum; Springfield Ballet; and the Springfield Regional Arts Council.
On a cold, drizzly afternoon earlier this month, several kindergarteners and first graders are gathering, along with parents and guardians, in the gymnasium at McGregor Elementary School at the corner of Madison and Fort in west-central Springfield for the final “Dance Chance” program of the fall semester. It’s a program of Springfield Ballet and has been going on for nine years now, according to Springfield Ballet Executive Director Evan Bennett.
“I think we identified, early on, that these Title One schools were a necessary component to help with. So it didn’t actually start with Zone Blitz, but it’s been a good fit—it’s something that we are able to add to that,” says Bennett.
Bennett mentioned Title One schools. These are schools and school districts that serve large low-income student populations and qualify for special U.S. Department of Education funding. The Ballet’s “Dance Chance” is a partnership with Springfield Public Schools, the Springfield Community Center and Caring Communities to provide seven weeks of free dance instruction at Boyd, McGregor, Weaver and Weller elementary schools. Bennett says the Ballet serves around 150 children in grades K through 3 with this program. There are two different sessions: for kindergarten and first grade, and for second and third grade.
This is a kindergarten/first grade group. It’s their final session of the semester, and they are going to show off some dance steps they’ve learned with Springfield Ballet’s Lizz Walrath. She describes what she does with the kids during the seven-week sessions.
“We do our basic ballet curriculum, and then we also talk about nutrition, and we talk about having respect and things like that. So they really have to focus, and a lot of it is waiting and sitting still when they’re supposed to," says Walrath.
I also talked with some parents who were there to watch the final demonstration, including Miranda and Jeremiah, proud parents of first-grader Lizzie. When Lizzie heard about the program, says Miranda, “She wanted to do it really bad, so we did!” And what has Lizzie gotten out of the sessions?
“Just a lot of fun with her friends, and she met some other kids that are not in her class—and of course, learning how to dance a little!”
Asked if Lizzie might be interested in continuing to study dance, Miranda said, ‘Oh definitely, yes.” The scene transitions to a rather quieter venue, as an assertive little boy demands to know what I’m doing in his pre-school.
“Why are you here?!”
Reporter: “I’m doing a radio show, that’s why I’m here!” (No glib rejoinder from me, I just told it like it was.) One of the teachers scolded him gently—“Didn’t I tell you that was rude?”
Well... he wasn’t being rude—just curious.
This was a pre-school full of 3- to 5-year-olds at the Fairbanks, the former elementary school on North Broadway in the Grant Beach Neighborhood that’s being turned into a community betterment center. There I visited another long-running arts program that is now partnering with the Zone Blitz Initiative in Springfield’s Zone 1: the Springfield Regional Arts Council’s “Mini Monet” program. It used to be called Mini Monet Mondays,” but this particular session was on a Tuesday. It consists of weekly art instruction designed to enhance young children’s overall development, help ready them for the more structured world of kindergarten, and strengthen their interest in art.
Cory Leick is a local visual artist who teaches several classes like this per week for the Arts Council. She notes that there are 14 children in this pre-school group, and they basically spend the entire day there while their parents are at work. Asked what she was planning for them today, Leick said there would be a story time, “then we’re going to come over here to the tables they’re going to be decorating craft paper to wrap the Christmas ornaments that they made on an earlier day.”
Leick has been working with the Arts Council’s Mini Monet program for two years, and she’s especially pleased that it’s now a partner program with the Zone Blitz.
“It’s wonderful that they’re paying so much attention to this part of town, because it really needs it. We’re trying to bring a little extra art experience for these really young children that may not have the opportunity to work with a whole bunch of different art materials," says Leick. "And at a young age it’s a really important thing—their brains are developing, and it’s the perfect time to introduce them to a lot of different things. I try to bring a big variety of stuff. I’m teaching for the second year, and you can really see the progress, and it’s pretty neat. I know that they’ll be ready for kindergarten as far as art goes.”
Before I left that morning, one child, busily stamping a cut-in-half potato first in white paint and then onto the craft paper to make designs or impressions, asked me, “Hey, do you know what I’m making?” Having heard him tell one of the teachers a bit earlier, I was able to answer right away, “You’re making stairs, aren’t you?” “Yes,” he said matter-of-factly. Just another day of confident creativity at the Fairbanks pre-school, made possible by the Springfield Regional Arts Council.
To find out more about the Zone Blitz Initiative and its goals of addressing challenges and creating opportunities, visit www.springfieldmo.gov/2794/zone-blitz.