In this program, artists help prepare children for kindergarten — and their teachers learn, too

Teacher Jeanette Samuel stands up before a Head Start class and begins bouncing and chanting a song aloud in a lilting voice, “Can we go OVER it? Yes, we can. Can we go UNDER it? Yes, we can.”

While the children gather around to sing with “Miss Jeanette,” Katy Schoetzow, a performing artist, uses props to transform other parts of the room into an adventure to follow Felix the mouse to a circus. The 3- and 4-year-olds track a hand-drawn map and line up to go around an imaginary lake, under a tower, through trees and across a pond.  

This unique classroom experience is part of the Detroit Wolf Trap program. Twice each week at a Matrix Head Start center in Detroit’s New Center neighborhood, performing artists visit to work with instructors and students. Schoetzow was teaching the children about colors, helping them develop body coordination, and strengthen what Wolf Trap calls positional vocabulary — words like over, under, around and across.

Other teaching artists, as they are called in the program, might also use singing, dancing, drawing, and other art forms to help teachers and parents prepare children for kindergarten.

As Detroit heavily invests in early childhood education and seeks new ways to improve the quality of instruction, this is one program illustrating a path forward. While lots of schools have nonprofit partnerships that bring arts or music to classrooms, this national initiative brings artists to train teachers and collaborates with parents to help in the process of everyday learning.

“This is arts integration, the ability to use dance, visual arts, theater arts, music, take them and make them elemental so we can really start connecting the basics,” said Erika Villarreal Bunce, director of programs for Living Arts, the nonprofit organization that sponsors the interactive arts program. “We use those art forms like Katy did, using drama techniques to connect them to what the children are already doing and push those forward.”

Each year since 2012, about 1,000 Detroiters as young as 3 months have been learning an array of academic and social skills in highly creative classroom environments at this Matrix and three other Head Starts.

While the children are learning, so are the teachers. Schoetzow shows them how to engage the youngsters so they can continue the lessons when she’s not around. On this recent morning, Samuel has shown she has mastered singing aloud as a classroom management technique.

The teachers participate in workshops, consult with Schoetzow and develop a plan for the students, and learn performance arts strategies to enhance instruction.

In addition, the children’s parents can sit in the classroom and attend workshops to learn how to engage their children. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older siblings also come along to learn how to work with the children at home.

In fact, the program has been so effective, Detroiter Karen Hernandez said it’s changed her family’s life. Her 6-year-old son, a shy boy, emerged from his shell when he started the Detroit Wolf Trap program at the Ford Resource and Engagement Center in southwest Detroit. Now, she said, he is a better English and Spanish speaker because of the bilingual program there. And the family is writing stories and songs together.

“It’s connecting us more as a family. We’re not so involved in our phones or the television,” said Hernandez, who also is mother to a newborn. “It’s connecting me more to him and he doesn’t have to feel left out with the new baby. Since we participate in this class together, it’s really connecting us.”

Schoetzow, the teacher artist, says the movements students learn will help prepare them for kindergarten.

“At the end of this school year, we’ll have a lot of kids who are kindergarten ready,” she said. Schoetzow is a musical theater performer and choreographer in Detroit area theaters. All of the teachers in the Wolf Trap program are working artists.

Researchers say the Wolf Trap program works for the 50,000 children it serves each year in 17 states. The program supports the need for children who lack access to arts education resources, especially those from low-income families, children who are English learners, and who have other challenges.

In 2016, the American Institutes for Research released findings from a study it conducted on the program. The study found that children who participated in the first year received the equivalent of 26 extra days of learning.

In the second year, the study found the additional learning amounted to 34 additional days of math learning in school. Among other findings, teachers said using artist techniques especially helped those who were shy, had never been to school or who were speaking another language.

In Detroit, a five-year study from 2012 to 2017 had similar findings after measuring how children progressed in core academics and cognitive growth, and how they developed socially, emotionally, and physically, Bunce said.

“Our study has proven the children who have had a Wolf Trap experience are making significant improvement in comparison to children not having the experience,” she said.

Riley ran a daycare for 25 years before she started teaching Head Start this school year. She said Wolf Trap enhances life in her classroom. She recalls how Schoetzow recently made pretend pizzas with the students. They were very engaged in the shapes of their pizzas.

“Sometimes, our day gets to be a little dry because the kids hear things over and over again,” Riley said. “The arts helps us with the mix, and I can see the advantage for the children. I see them learning and growing from this.”