Supporting Students with Disabilities in Rigorous Arts Programs

Students at the DeKalb School for the Arts take a dance class with guest teacher Jennifer Mason; the instructor lifts her left leg in the air and two rows of high school students in black leotards and pink tights standing behind her attempt to imitiate her.At the prestigious DeKalb School of the Arts in Avondale Estates, Georgia, students are held to high standards for both academic and arts learning. Attendance at the school means a full course load of academic classes and electives in a chosen artistic discipline, plus a demanding schedule of afterschool rehearsals and activities. But the rigors of this magnet arts school do not preclude it from supporting students with disabilities. Anna Dunn, the school’s ballet mistress and community arts liaison, says many supports have been put in place to help every student find success.

The DeKalb School of the Arts (DSA) serves over 400 students in grades 8-12 with majors in drama, dance, vocal and instrumental music, visual arts, video technology, theatrical design and production, creative writing, and multimedia. Academic courses are offered at a variety of levels, including gifted and advanced placement. Students, who gain admission to DSA through a competitive audition process, are also required to earn a minimum of two production credits each year.

Five students work in a production shop; one kneels on the floor measuring wood, while the other four lean over a work table while using saws.

DSA students work on a theater production and design project, remembering to measure twice, cut once!

With such a demanding program of study, faculty and staff provide many supports to help students succeed, especially students with Individualized Education Programs. For instance, Dunn says, “Every teacher at DSA offers after school tutorials, as do DSA students in the National Honor Society. Our teachers also make themselves available to tutor students who may not currently be in one of their classes, if that student prefers to work with them. It is not unusual to see the orchestra teacher helping a student with his math homework while conducting a rehearsal!”

DSA staff share information about things like rehearsal schedules in multiple formats and on their website. They also utilize nontraditional methods in the classroom to reach every student. “Many of our academic teachers do not teach a traditional lecture model class. For instance, we see a lot of kinesthetic learning in our literature classes, and this seems to work well for DSA students,” says Dunn.

Fifteen students sit in a circle on the floor with their hands on each other shoulders; there are notebooks and pencils on the inside of the circle.

DSA students study for a quiz on the muscles of the back.

Given the rigors of an arts learning program like DSA, it is not unusual for the students to experience anxiety. Dunn says they have seen an increasing number of students with anxiety disorders at DSA, and the school has been proactive in training staff on strategies to help students manage anxiety. Dunn explains, “In my class, we do a lot of breathing exercises. Other teachers use meditation in the classroom. One English teacher has tea with students during discussions to try and keep everyone comfortable and secure.”

Dunn says DSA has found most of the supports they put in place for students with disabilities are beneficial to the entire school. “The things we do to help students with anxiety disorders can reduce everyone’s stress level. The tutoring program supports anyone who needs extra help, including students with learning disabilities,” she says, adding, “At the end of the day, we all want to ensure a productive academic and arts learning environment for every student.”

Photo of a woman with long brown hair, sitting on steps wearing a blue dress and white necklace.

Anna Dunn

Anna Dunn will present “Stressed Out! The Overachieving Student Artist with Anxiety Disorders” with Tequila Morgan, Monica Hanley, and Beth Williams at the 2018 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference on Tuesday, August 7, at 2:00 p.m.

Student artists from DeKalb School of the Arts will be featured at the 2018 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference on Wednesday, August 8, at 12:45 p.m.

Anna Dunn will present “Supporting Students with Disabilities in a Rigorous Arts Program” with Kimberly S. Posley at the 2018 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference on Wednesday, August 8, at 2:45 p.m.

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