Círculos High arts partnership helps Santa Ana students find their voice

Amid a public health crisis, social isolation and societal unrest, a Santa Ana school and a local nonprofit are helping students find their voice and build resilience through writing, art and dance.

Círculos High at Advanced Learning Academy in the Santa Ana Unified School District isn’t your typical campus. It’s one of 19 XQ Super Schools in the country as part of an initiative dedicated to rethinking high schools. It’s also known for collaborating with community partners to promote unique learning opportunities outside the classroom.

Student artwork
A ninth-grader from Círculos High at Advanced Learning Academy in Santa Ana displays his autobiographical artwork. The school’s partnership with Well Beings Studio encourages students to write personal narratives and express them through the arts.

In the distance learning era, Círculos has teamed up with Well Beings Studio, which offers free arts-based experiences and resources for families impacted by cancer and other hardships.

Well Beings Studio Director Sharon Frances said she approached school officials before the pandemic with the idea of creating a dance residency inspired by her podcast, “Ash and Feather,” which shares the story of a teenager who embraces the arts to cope with family trauma.

What emerged from that discussion was a six-week course of study tied to language arts that has the school’s ninth-graders writing their own personal memoirs and expressing them through art and dance.

Deborah Park, curator of projects and partnerships for Círculos, said this year’s freshmen were assigned to listen to Frances’ podcast and read well-known texts such as Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime,” Sandra Cisneros’ “House on Mango Street” and the Maya Angelou poem, “Caged Bird,” before penning a chapter about their own lives.

Then they were tasked with creating visual pieces, such as shadow photography or paintings. And, about halfway through the program, they’re working with a dance choreographer to transform their narratives into physical movements — though they can opt for a spoken-word presentation if they prefer.

“We’ve been surprised that so many of our students are willing to try out the dancing,” Park said. “A lot of students had to overcome their fear that they had to dance a certain way to be a good dancer.”

‘Can I stay here all day?’

Círculos High currently serves 123 students, including 60 ninth-graders. According to the school’s website, they would typically spend six hours a week outside the classroom on “place-based excursions,” making connections with local design firms, labs, universities, arts institutions, public health centers and other community partners.

Yet there’s also value in looking inward. Frances, a former educator, said autobiographical narratives are important because they help young people better understand their own place in the world.

And the arts can help students process big feelings when words are not enough.

Participants in video chat
Ninth-graders from Círculos engage in a video chat with members of Freestyle Love Supreme, a hip hop improv group created by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“We’re trying to use all of the arts in order to tap into what might help each student,” she said. “There’s research showing that when a person goes through trauma or hardship, whether it’s physical or emotional, the arts help to reduce anxiety, depression, pain and increase the quality of life.”

Like so much of everything, class meetings take place via Zoom, which, for all of its technical sophistication, has the potential to make engagement challenging — and that’s if you’ve got a working device and adequate bandwidth, which isn’t always a given.

But students are engaged, and they’re posting positive feedback in the chat thread, Frances said.

“They are saying things like, ‘This is the first time I felt happy dancing,”’ she said, “and ‘Can I stay here all day and forever?’”

Park said the video conferencing has actually made it possible for the school to work with artists beyond Orange County, such as Freestyle Love Supreme, a New York-based improvisational hip-hop group started by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Even their dance choreographer, Allie Fogel, lives in Georgia.

“It’s just amazing,” Park said, “that within this unprecedented time of distance learning, we are still able to think outside the box and work with community partners to ensure the well-being and academic engagement of our students.”