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Penguins Can't Fly... But They Can Soar

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In my blog "Look Papi... I Did It", I identified P.94 and their experience with disabled children who defied prognostication by breaking through and feeling better about themselves and (as they called it) felt "more normal".

The most recent blog I wrote had to do with financial cuts to The Kennedy Center's educational program and, in particular, Very Special Learning.

Most of America sees The Kennedy Center on television as a place where people who have accomplished a lifetime of greatness in a chosen field are honored... not a national source for educational standards.

The individuals honored by a Kennedy Center Award fall into this special category of being unique. They are not fungible. They are special and no honor has referred to how well or poorly they performed on the SATs or any other "tests" because it is not relevant as to how they succeeded in their lives.

David Brooks has said (on the subject of education reform) that: "The things that really matter are your ability to establish a connection with a teacher, your ability to control your impulses, your ability to establish social relationships with peers." His concern is that -- when the cuts are being made and have been made -- they are based on the "old version" of what is human capital... viz.: only those things we can count or measure and all the rest is peripheral.

We can measure reading and math, so that is what we think is important. But if you cut the arts and music because you think that's peripheral, you're wrong because "actually central" are poetry, sports and anything that keeps kids in school.

In March 2011, Donna Fish wrote about the crisis of cutting more from the public schools of New York State, but "cutting teachers who are the heart and soul of great schools, the people who keep families from fleeing New York City, knowing that the public school system here is not only great because of test scores, but because the citizens of the City participate in the life blood of what makes New York great and have decided they can raise their kids here and send them to public schools."

She asks New York City's Mayor, "Do we really not only want to lose that tax base but lose that population?"

She asks: "why anyone should care whether or not a school puts on a show." "If you care at all about New York City continuing to be a place where people can remain and raise their kids so the City doesn't just become a shopping mall for foreigners, you might care." But don't expect every kid to get a perfect test score. A test score is not the measure of whether or not the child has really learned anything except how to take a test.

The 50 kids Ms. Fish saw participating in a school show at Beacon High School were going through the process of experiential learning, not how to pass a test so that their school could continue to get some bucks from the City, State or Federal government, but learning, maturing and growing skills to use in life to become better citizens.

It's not just New York City.

There is still entrepreneurial spirit all over the place and that's why this Blog is called Penguins Can't Fly... But They Can Soar.

In East Peoria, Illinois, a group of children are immersed in the Penguin Project®.

They perform musicals on the stage. But the children who perform have developmental disabilities including Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Autism, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, visual and hearing impairments and other neurological disorders.

Unlike P.94, peer mentors -- groups of children the same age who do not have disabilities -- volunteer to work with them for four months of rehearsal and then in the final production.

Did those children (both the disabled and the unimpaired) learn more/less or the same from preparing for an SAT? Have they (by being immersed in this act of interacting with a colleague their age with a disability) shown any signs that they might be our future leaders? In fact, they might be the kind of citizens that we would like to have in our country. Isn't that what Mr. Brooks was talking about? This isn't peripheral; it's essential.

A developmental pediatrician at the University of Illinois in Peoria conceived the Penguin Project®. Penguins are playful, curious and work very well together, but they have a disability which is that they can't fly like other birds - so they waddle, roll on their bellies over the snow, swim in the water, have adapted to the challenges of their environment and their lives go on and they thrive. So penguins can soar.

Let's shift from Peoria quickly across the country back to Charlotte, North Carolina.

Five years ago in Charlotte, NC, The Kennedy Center, iTheatrics and MTI spent a single weekend teaching teachers how to teach the arts. What happened as a result?

In 2011, 27 schools, over 1,000 students, 135 teachers, staff and parents - a total of 1,200 plus participants - put on shows, integrated the arts into their public school programs because of a grant from The Doctor Family Foundation, because of the imagination and perseverance of the Blumenthal Educational Department and because of the willingness of the greater Charlotte area schools and a department of education. A handful of teachers from local schools with the nurturing and support of the Blumenthal Center were willing to see what it takes to try to do this. They've changed their lives and their community for the better.

On to Arizona.

The United Kingdom winner of the Best New Musical on The West End, HONK (based on THE UGLY DUCKLING) and Disney's ALADDIN were just performed by the Detour Company Theatre in Phoenix, Arizona. Authentic arts education materials were used that had been prepared for children all over the United States. It was performed, however, by adults.

These adults have developmental challenges including deafness, blindness and Autism. It is not only a center for fun and companionship where people support each other, where the community can go and where the families of all these people can see them in action doing something they are enjoying positively... It's saving money on depression medications and doctor's visits and using self-help to address an issue. (SATs don't measure that.)

Zip over to Coachella Valley Autism Society of America where they did THE JUNGLE BOOK KIDS last summer... The Autism Society of East Tennessee in Knoxville... They are doing the same thing... and more. It's all over our country.

P.94 in New York City is not the exception to the rule. It is what is happening in our country. In the true spirit of America, Americans are doing what they have to do in spite of the absence of help and the reduction of support from its government, whether it be municipal, State or Federal. We are Americans. We persevere. We overcome. We are the land of the brave.

The Kennedy Center was present at that first workshop and helped nurture it in North Carolina by giving Johnny Appleseed the seeds to plant... We'll make the orchard and harvest it... just give us some seeds... some respect.

In New York City, the ArtsConnection focuses on about 10% of the 1,200 schools in the City. They give them a comprehensive program - a variety of the arts in partnership with the private and public sector. Almost all of these ventures are collaborative partnerships with a little support from the local governments or the Federal government. But the private sector looks to see if the imprimatur of "government" is on the project before the bucks flow. Still perceived as a good housekeeping deal.

No one has asked our government to be the sole support for these ventures... but government endorsement and a few bucks become the primer of the pump.

Folks, Americans learn the story of Johnny Appleseed. We haven't stopped sowing the seeds; I've just given examples of those seeds being sown. Our government can't expect that there will be a harvest in our future if you don't seed our new young population and then water, feed and nurture it.

The government doesn't have to do it for us. They just have to be there and give a little support and some seeds.

Congressmen and Senators who don't get it, don't see it... Your country, your constituents are persevering in spite of ill-conceived, short-sighted cuts.

If penguins can soar, every kid can fly... and when they fly... they will have greater vision over the common good.