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An interview with The Wooden Floor, a New York Life Foundation Aim High grantee

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An interview with The Wooden Floor, a New York Life Foundation Aim High grantee

As the pandemic changed the learning landscape in and out of school, afterschool programs had to adapt. We spoke with Dawn S. Reese, Chief Executive Officer at The Wooden Floor, to discuss how her organization has pivoted to support students and families, and to hear more about what they undertook with support from an Aim High grant from the New York Life Foundation. Aim High grants are awarded to afterschool, summer, or expanded learning programs that help economically disadvantaged middle school students successfully transition to high school. Research has shown that for disadvantaged students, more learning time in the form of high-quality afterschool, expanded-day, and summer programs leads to greater achievement, better school attendance, and more engaged students. The Wooden Floor was one of 36, 2021 Aim High grantees. 

What is The Wooden Floor?

The Wooden Floor is among the foremost creative youth development organizations in the country. We transform the lives of 475 young people annually in low-income communities through the power of dance and access to higher education. Our goal is to teach young people what it takes to succeed in school and in life. The Wooden Floor’s mission is to empower youth to strengthen self-esteem, self-discipline, and sense of accomplishment through dance, academic, and family programs. Our vision is to break the cycle of poverty through generational change.

Tell us a little about the support you’ve been able to provide young people with your Aim High grant?

In spring 2021, The Wooden Floor was awarded an Aim High grant to support our wrap-around programs. The Next Step program© includes academic advising and mentoring for 6th-12th grade, and workshops called Empowerment to help middle school students transition from 5th to 6th grade and 8th to 9th grade. During the pandemic, The Wooden Floor created Connect3/4/5 in the virtual environment in order to assist elementary grade students in navigating their time at home, away from their schools and away from The Wooden Floor. We make a 10-year commitment to each child and it is important that they have the tools and resources to transition from elementary to middle school, and then from middle school to high school successfully. This ensures they are college competitive and will then progress into higher education, setting themselves up to be on track to reach their academic and personal potential.

Our plan is to continue these programs as children switch schools, change teachers, or transition through grade levels. Our other efforts supported by the New York Life Foundation focus on helping students make the transition from middle school to high school, and helping youth adjust to virtual or hybrid learning as well as the social aspects of making friends and fostering connections in these environments.

What considerations did you need to take into account when the pandemic hit in your community?

The Wooden Floor makes a ten-year commitment to students from third grade through twelfth grade, so that was our baseline for planning for the pandemic and what the implication was for these children. We took the long view immediately and read resources on what the impacts were going to be for youth experiencing social isolation, academic decline, and mental health challenges. We asked ourselves how we can support children in the immediacy of that, but also how we can plan for the longer-term impact on them and their families. We also thought about how to support the very fabric of our community because we are in a population that has been particularly impacted by the pandemic. We knew we were going to have to rally and be there immediately to support them.

Has the pandemic opened the doors to a new way of operating/streamlining operations?

Once we overcame the initial crisis of the pandemic, we then looked at how to pilot into our summer program and how this could lead into our fall programs. We saw our third graders acting like eighth graders, with the techno-literacy of both our students and our families increasing dramatically. We thought, if we can put technology into the hands of our parents, we can have a gateway into the home.

In the summer of 2020, when we found out that 225 of our students wouldn’t have access to laptops, we reached out to our foundation and corporate partners and asked for support. We were able to get laptops into the homes of our students and parents, which allowed us to expand programming for parents. Parents would be able to hop on when their children weren’t using the laptops and attend our afterschool or weekend programming. For the students, they were able to access tutoring during the day and have their dance classes fully remote. We were able to run our full program with live accompaniment, live dancing, tutoring, as well as college preparatory and counseling sessions. We continued this fully remote model since September of 2020 until September of 2021, when we went into a hybrid model. With the uncertainty of the pandemic, we know we can be successful and agile in adapting.

Were there any positive impacts that came from the pandemic?

Our short-term plan was to get students learning virtually, and working with our Senior Leadership Team, to create the four pillars of intention for our virtual programming: techno-literacy, creativity, connection, and health/wellness. We thought this would only happen in the dance education program, but it manifested into all parts of our programmatic model. We are privately funded and we begin fund raising eight months before the start of the fiscal year, so by December 2020, we had already met our fiscal budget. We were able to approach the pandemic calmly, proactively, and intentionally, insuring that we were taking care of our students, our families, and our staff first.

How is The Wooden Floor supporting youth recovery as schools make the transition back to in-person learning?

We know students have experienced isolation, depression, and anxiety. We are not just providing academic remediation. We make sure to provide extra mentorship, extra relationships, and home check-ins.

The challenges that students face may not look the same for each person; sometimes it’s food insecurity, housing insecurity, or family loss. We created a support group for our parents; we normally don’t provide support groups just for parents. We usually provide support groups for parents to address student needs. We realized when parents or guardians start struggling, then the home starts struggling. When we think of that recovery, we want to create that stable and firm foundation at home because we are with these families for ten years. We are considered a second home, and although it might not be a physical home in the virtual space, we want to create a safe, mental home. We focus on one student at a time.

What are you most excited about your return to in-person learning?

We are making a triumphant return to performance! The performance is the product, but the learning happens through the process. There is something magical about the performance and for our students to be in an environment that is so creative. The students here at The Wooden Floor have the chance to step out and be courageous. Our students tell us that they love being back on campus, seeing all their friends, and doing something different from what they were doing every day. Our artmaking is like a professional performance, so when people see what their children have been doing amid a pandemic, they're so surprised! When we give our students the best, they rise to their best. This is a shining moment of our community’s resilience. We are excited to look ahead and continue to pilot some of the ideas that have been working for our community.

What piece of advice do you have for similar OST programs?

We must take the long view of the pandemic because we don’t know yet the impact this will have on our youth who have been so affected by these monumental times in their lives. The services that we provide need to adapt to meet the evolving needs. Organizations need to be forward facing. Whoever they are serving, they need to have a far-looking view because our youth are going to need strategic, long-range thinkers in our sector. Youth need these organizations that are there for them in all these different ways.

Learn more about The Wooden Floor program and their work in Santa Ana, California.

Learn about Aim High and find updates on the next Aim High grant competition.

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