Art smart

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

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Performance artist Katy Schoetzow uses a mouse puppet to teach children new words such as over, under, across, and through

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.”

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

Staying in school

Detroit students ‘making mistakes’ will get a second chance as district opens new alternative school

Detroit students whose discipline issues have proved too much for their schools to handle finally have a way to stay in school in the city.

Years after the district’s last alternative high school shut down, the Detroit school board on Tuesday voted to open a new school for students whose repeated violations of district rules could otherwise lead to a suspension or expulsion.

Located on the site of the former Catherine Ferguson Academy, the new school is part of a broader effort to overhaul discipline in the district, which meted out 16,000 suspensions last year. The movement to make schools less punitive followed concerns that zero-tolerance school discipline policies push children out of school and onto the streets.

Starting with the new school year, the rewritten code of conduct will require schools to show they’ve tried to improve a student’s behavior by means besides suspension, such as contacting a parent, before they can remove the student from school. The code also emphasizes restorative justice, a collection of practices that allows students to take responsibility for their actions and make amends.

The ultimate goal is to eradicate out-of-school suspensions entirely, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said. In the meantime, the alternative school will give students a place to learn when their home school throws up its hands.

“When students are making mistakes, and they’re given out-of-school suspension and not returning to school, that leads to [higher] dropout rates and to disengagement,” Vitti said. He noted that students who are given long suspensions often never return to school.

The new school will operate much like any other in the district, with a principal and teachers. It will also get a team of specialists — a dean of culture, an attendance agent, a school culture facilitator, a social worker, and a guidance counselor — to take on the non-academic problems that can underlie bad behavior.

Students would be referred to the school after repeatedly disrupting their home school, Vitti said. They would be placed at the alternative school only with their parents’ approval; otherwise, they would not attend school during the suspension.

Students would spend between three and six months at the school, leaving only after discussion between the principal and the parent. They might attend until the end of a semester, then return to their original school or a different school.

While some middle schools offer an alternative-school program, it hasn’t been available to high schoolers in years. The last alternative high school in the district — Detroit City High School — closed in 2013. Another, Barsamian Preparatory Academy, closed in 2012.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a board member, welcomed the district’s return to an alternative school model.

“Every child in the city of Detroit deserves to be educated, no matter what the barriers are,” she said.

She blamed cost-cutting efforts by state-appointed emergency managers for the disappearance of alternative programs, which are fully staffed but tend to be smaller than mainstream campuses. When Barsamian closed in 2011, 56 students were enrolled.

School districts across Michigan use alternative school programs, in part because they offer more focused attention to high-need students, said Wendy Zdeb, president of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

Students in these programs “are more likely to have small class sizes, and they’re more likely to have a curriculum that’s tailored to them,” she said.

The new school is expected to start small as the new code of conduct goes into effect this fall, Vitti said

It will be called Catherine Ferguson Alternative Academy, after the school for teen mothers that previously occupied the space, according to a school board document. Several years after the school closed amid a wave of cost cutting, the name still holds some luster left from the media spotlight that focused on the school’s high attendance and graduation rates.

In response to a question from Misha Stallworth, a board member, Vitti said at a committee meeting last month that he hopes to add a program for teen mothers but has not yet identified a school to house such a program.