A Step Beyond: Empowering Underserved Youth With Dance, Academic Support & Family Services
By Erin Coller
Escondido-based nonprofit A Step Beyond is taking a unique approach to help local children succeed in school and end the poverty cycle, by focusing on dance and teaching children starting in third grade how to express themselves creatively after school while also focusing on academics and family life.
A Step Beyond targets youth living in poverty in North County San Diego through a comprehensive dance, academics and family services program. The location was strategically selected based upon San Diego Workforce Partnership research showing a high poverty rate in the area, as well as a significant rate of youth between the ages of 16-24 who are not working and are not in school. Students begin their 10-year commitment with A Step Beyond beginning in third grade. A goal has been set by A Step Beyond for 100 percent of students to graduate from high school and finish college degrees, in comparison to what is likely to be a low percentage of their peer group who will achieve the same accomplishments.
In operation since 2014, A Step Beyond offers a unique creative youth development program model which has demonstrated success in other states and is the first of its kind in San Diego. The program combines creative arts, academic support and family services for each of the 40 students per year who enroll, with an annual concert and community performances giving the children an opportunity to showcase the skills they have mastered.
A Step Beyond relies on community support through volunteers and donations, and a key partner for the organization is San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E). The support from SDG&E focuses on the summer program which aims to help address issues of summer reading loss. Many students fall behind in reading and language skills during the summer and can begin to disengage when they return to school in the fall because they are below the level of their peers.
With SDG&E’s support through the Inspiring Future Leaders giving initiative, the summer program will focus on the nature of environmental challenges, related inquiry, and personal responsibility in this context, the participants (ages 9-12) introduce a cohort of low-income children to various strands of STEM learning.
According to A Step Beyond Artistic Director Jennifer Oliver, research findings show that through the pursuit of mastery in dance, students obtain the habits and skills necessary to achieve their future goals. Dancing provides the opportunity for children to be present in the moment and to navigate and make decisions based upon prediction of outcomes, skills that all translate to other areas of life and lead to success in school and beyond.
Oliver explained that the organization’s goal from the outset was to find the most effective way of targeting children to overcome the cycle of poverty, and the program was designed based on research showing that it is very important to target students at a young age, specifically at the third-grade level. Many children who disengage with school begin doing so in third grade starting with reading loss and leading to total disengagement with the system—a cycle that A Step Beyond is strategically working to stop.
The academic focus of A Step Beyond’s program includes tutoring for students with an open academic lab which they are required to attend for three years. After three years, the students can attend the academic lab by choice if they maintain a grade point average above 3.0, and are required to attend if it falls below that level. A Step Beyond also employs a full-time licensed clinical social worker who works with students and their families in counseling and small group sessions to help ensure a healthy and supportive setting at home which is crucial to success in school and in creative after-school activities.
Children who participate begin with an introductory week-long dance program taught in several local schools to all third-grade students, and those who are interested based on their experience can choose to audition. The team at A Step Beyond is then faced with the difficult task of selecting 40 students out of approximately 160 who audition.
“With the focus on dance, students are getting the after-school activity they desire—something fun and creative, with the opportunity to express their unique voice, to be celebrated, and to produce something that they have ownership over,” said Oliver. Students also benefit from the mentorship model and have expressed a desire to work alongside professionals in the field and produce professional-caliber results. Through this type of creative youth development program, we can change the trajectory of students’ lives and stop the cycle of poverty.”