On stage, Carlos Lopez stomped his feet and belted out, “Ha!”
The triumphant declaration during a workshop on urban dance delighted his teacher—and left staff grappling with a question: How can middle schools do better at engaging boys?
The question arose at Fair Haven School, where students got a special visit from CONTRA-TIEMPO, an urban Latin dance company from L.A.
The visiting dancers worked with 65 Fair Haven School kids this week as part of a four-day tour through New Haven sponsored by Community Alliance for Research and Engagement, the city, and the Connecticut Mental Health Center Foundation.
As the kids stomped and clapped on the stage, Principal Margaret-Mary Gethings made an observation: Boys—even those who often have difficulty focusing in class—were completely on task.
The visit highlighted a missing component at the K-8 neighborhood school in the heart of the city’s Latino community: Fair Haven School has an after-school dance program, Ballet Haven, that has transformed the lives of middle-school girls. But the school doesn’t have an equivalent program to keep boys hooked on school.
Boys across the country, in urban and suburban schools, are more likely than girls to be suspended, to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorders, to be held back, and to drop out, said author Peg Tyre, who wrote a best-selling book on the topic that ignited a national debate about how schools are failing boys. The educational outcomes for black and Latino boys are particularly bleak.
Boys at Fair Haven School play football, basketball and soccer. Some take music lessons. But they don’t have a counterpart to Ballet Haven, through which teachers Mnikesa Whitaker and Monica Bunton help girls build a strong sense of identity, confidence, determination and discipline.
“Ballet Haven has been so influential” for girls, Principal Gethings said. “We’re looking to have some kind of vehicle for boys.”
The vehicle, she said, might resemble what happened on stage Tuesday morning.
Students filed into the school auditorium Tuesday in three shifts of 20 kids each. There, they met four energetic professional dancers, two men and two women. The dancers—Steve Flores, Jeremiah Buren, Isis Avalos and Maisha Morris—work with kids across the country, especially minority kids. They swung through New Haven between trips to New York and Pittsburgh.
Morris, the dance company’s rehearsal director, said CONTRA-TIEMPO aims to give voice to “those who aren’t traditionally heard on the stage.” She led the students, who are mostly Latino, through a warmup, which involved asserting ownership over their own body parts through movement and phrases: “This is my head. It ain’t your head.”
The main lesson focused on step dancing. Stepping, she said, is about “who you are as an individual,” expressing pride and confidence in yourself.
Morris taught the group to stomp. And clap. Like they meant it. One move involved belting out an assertive “ha!”
“Let all of it out,” she instructed. “That’s the beauty of dance and movement. If you don’t have the words, let it out” through your body.
“Don’t worry about being quiet,” she said, issuing an instruction not often heard at school. “Don’t be quiet for the rest of your life. Make your voice known.”
The “ha"s—and accompanying giggles—echoed boldly in the school auditorium.
Students mastered the steps of a routine they had begun to learn on Monday. The routine ended in a powerful pose with two fists held tight in front of the chest.
At the end of a final run-through with the 8th grade, one boy’s voice rang out alone.
“Ha!” called out Carlos Lopez (second from left in photo).
His forceful exclamation drew giggles because it fell at the wrong moment in the routine.
Morris took it as a welcome sign.
“There it was!” she encouraged him. “You felt it.”
Carlos, who’s 15, arrived at Fair Haven School less than a year ago from Mexico. This was his first time learning to step.
“I felt the power I had inside,” he said in Spanish. “It was a great experience.”
In his group of about 20 8th-graders, Carlos was one of three boys. Fair Haven music teacher Dan Kinsman said he invited all 8th-graders to sign up for the class. Students secured a spot by taking home a permission slip and bringing it back with a signature—a requirement designed to demonstrate that the kids really wanted to be there.
Girls are much more likely to engage in extra-curricular activities at school, except for sports, according to author Tyre.
“Opportunities to explore early leadership roles”—such as school plays, student council, and student newspaper—“are more in the female domain,” she said.
“Elementary and middle and high schools are very female-dominated places,” she said.
Not only are most teachers female, but schools value the types of behaviors girls tend to exhibit, she argued: Girls are often seen as “good at school” because they are more “compliant” and “follow the rules.” Boys are “not that compliant, in the main.”
Add to that educational disadvantages that start at an early age: “Boys begin school, from the very first days, behind girls, in literacy and pre-literacy experience. Little boys come into school speaking fewer words” than girls. Girls gain reading skills ahead of boys, and “those reading gaps grow almost every day” through high school and college, where girls are more likely to graduate.
Boys are four times more likely than girls to be identified as having learning disabilities and twice as likely to be held back in school, Tyre said. In middle school—boys are more likely to get Cs and Ds, while girls are more likely to get As and Bs.
“Boys get the idea that school is a game that they can’t win at, and they don’t want to play,” she said. “At a certain point boys wake up and realize that schools are female-dominated enterprises, and wonder where they fit in.”
That’s especially tough in the middle-school years, where “there’s a big quest for identity,” she added.
Boys sometimes find that identity in sports. They do well in “things that are physical and about competition and hierarchy,” which “provide a relief and counterpoint to the classroom,” she observed.
Boys relish a “high level of movement,” Tyre said, but the most important thing isn’t what the activity is—it’s the role model in front of the kids.
“If you have highly literate men who are leading boys in an activity,” she said, “it’s less about what you do. It’s more about what who leads it.”
Watching the six lessons over two days, Kinsman noticed that stepping was resonating not just with well-behaved kids like Carlos, but with boys who tend to act out. There were many more boys among the 6th- and 7th-graders who took the stage this week.
Boys who have “frequent discipline problems” were “completely engaged and in leadership roles and really shining,” Kinsman said.
“After they had that class in the morning, they had really good days in the rest of their classes. They were focused and participating,” he said.
“Seeing that change for these boys that struggle in school,” he said, “I’m definitely interested in how to continue that—to give them a reason to come to school, something to be excited about.”
CONTRA-TIEMPO is wrapping up its four-day residency with a free performance of the company’s hour-long work, FULL STILL HUNGRY, Thursday, Jan. 16 at 7:30 p.m. at Fair Haven School at 164 Grand Ave. A pre-show conversation with artistic director Ana Maria Alvarez, “Why Dance About Food?”, starts at 6:45 p.m.
Past stories on Fair Haven School:
• Bilingual Ed Overhaul Under Way
• New Havener Of The Year
• Common Core Hits Fair Haven
• Firefighters Respond To The Turkey Call
• VH1 Helps 15th City School Start Tooting
• Mr. Shen & Ms. Benicio Hit The Books
• Maneva & Co. Take On The ‘Burbs
• Aekrama & Ali Learn The Drill
• Fair Haven Makes Room For Newest Students
• From Burundi, A Heart Beats On
• As Death Nears, She Passes Down The Dance