EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ: The students at Robert Frost Elementary School crawled on the floor and roared like a lion in a pretend jungle, puckered their lips and swam like a fish in an imaginary ocean and hopped to pop invisible bubble wrap.
The group of about 20 third- through fifth-graders was participating in the Creative Movement class offered as part of Frost’s afterschool program.
The East Brunswick School District recently partnered with the Mason Gross Extension Division at Rutgers to bring the arts to its After School Kids (ASK) program. Mason Gross Extension Division provides arts education classes – from ballet and choir to visual arts and filmmaking – for the pre-college students.
"We have been aggressively working to extend teaching and learning into both our Early Morning Programs and After School Kids sessions. Our recent collaboration with the Mason Gross Extension Division of Rutgers offers our students creative opportunities to explore artistic interests. We are excited to have this opportunity for our students and are extremely appreciative of the talent Mason Gross brings to the East Brunswick Public Schools community, " Superintendent Dr. Victor Valeski said.
There are 1,200 students in kindergarten through seventh grade enrolled in the ASK program, according to Stephen Decker, principal of Early Learning and Community Enrichment. Decker said the district strives for the program to be an extension of the children’s daily instruction.
“This is not a babysitting program; this is enrichment,” Decker said. “Hopefully, we’re exposing them to something that they may never have exposure to and that creates a better educational environment for them to grow.”
Students can use the 2 ½ hours after school for homework instruction, to play sports or to take cooking classes. The partnership with the Mason Gross Extension Division allows the district to expand its program to include the arts.
“Our motto at East Brunswick is ‘Excellence in Academics, Athletics, and the Arts,’” Decker said. “My goal is to bring in the arts into our enrichment program so that we can expand our program.”
Creative Movement classes are offered at East Brunswick this fall, with plans to provide music and visual arts sessions in the spring.
“It’s a matter of building a community around the arts and we want to be part of that community,” Chris Kenniff, director of Mason Gross Extension Division, said.
Through partnerships like the one with East Brunswick, the division is able to extend its reach into the community, Kenniff added. Also this fall, the division began a partnership with Highland Park school district. There, the Rutgers Children’s Choir & Scarlet Singers holds its weekly evening rehearsals at an elementary school and, in exchange for using the much-needed space, the division offers discounts to Highland Park families.
Decker worked with the district’s Out-of-School-Time Coordinator Karen Ector to coordinate the partnership and then launch and manage the program throughout nine schools. Both also happen to be musicians, who know the value of an art education.
“The arts are important because education isn’t in isolation; it’s the whole child,” said Decker.
The instructors for the Creative Movement classes at East Brunswick are candidates or alumni from the Master’s in Dance Education program at Mason Gross, Kenniff said. Those in the Master’s program study to become dance teachers in schools. “They already have a love for teaching,” he said.
Melissa Denholtz, who taught one of the Creative Movement classes in October, said she enjoys working with elementary-school children.
“It’s more fun to work with kids who’ve never danced before because dancers are so disciplined, they can’t get out of their owns heads,” Denholtz said. “These kids just explore.”
Samadhi Ranaweera, a fifth-grader, participated in Denholtz’s class with her younger sister Tara, who is in fourth grade.
“It’s really, really fun,” the older sibling said with a wide smile. “You get to do all these crazy, fun things. It’s OK to be crazy once in a while.”