Each preschooler sitting on the classroom rug held a drum — some made from empty coffee cans, others from sand pails with neon duct tape stretched taut across the opening.
But they all wanted a turn with the caxixi shaker, a hollow gourd covered with netting studded with puka shells.
“It’s kind of like a pumpkin,” Sylvia Soumah said. “Does anyone like Halloween?”
Her question sparked excited chatter about Halloween candy. It might not have been the direction she had intended, but for Ms. Soumah, known by her students as “Mama Sylvie,” there are no wrong answers.
Ms. Soumah is a teaching artist for Inner City-Inner Child (ICIC), an arts outreach program that works with preschools in low-income areas of the District.
Since she began working with the program 20 years ago, her goals have been simple: Inspire children to learn, while keeping their minds open to diversity.
Diversity comes in all forms and is more than the language you speak or the way you look, Ms. Soumah said. Diversity in learning is often overlooked in the classroom as “children are placed in boxes,” and little attention is paid to diversity of learning and teaching styles, she said.
Children may be auditory, visual or hands-on learners, she said. Particularly for children with disabilities, alternative learning styles are the most effective.
Ms. Soumah considers herself an underdog, and views her work as a teaching artist an opportunity to fight for those like herself.
“Sometimes African-American children are at a disadvantage because they aren’t given the same opportunities in the classroom,” she said.
ICIC Executive Director Ingrid Zimmer said the greatest impact the program can have sometimes is simply engaging a child who previously was unresponsive.
At a learning center in Southeast, children sat in a circle, forming a stage for 4-year-old Jaella to dance. Her movements were random and jerky, Ms. Zimmer that Jaella had made incredible progress.
The preschooler lost her father to gun violence a few months ago and had “shut down,” she said. The dance was the first time Jaella had engaged with the class since then.
For the six low-income centers that ICIC selects each year, its three-month program offers to improve students’ math, art and literacy skills, and engage students who are developmentally and socially challenged or have undergone a traumatic event.
Teachers call this fusion of performance arts and traditional subjects “art integration,” a teaching tool that is increasing in popularity. Instead of students learning subjects in isolation, programs like ICIC’s “Dancing with Books” use music, dance and art to help them fully engage with the content of a picture book.
Finding the right book is no easy task, Ms. Zimmer said. It must have few words per page and inspire teaching artists to create an original song, dance and art project that they then will use to convey the themes of the book.
Karen O. Brown, a visual artist with the program, uses books to create “child-inspired and child-directed” curriculum. She encourages students to tear paper, rather than cut. Using their imaginations, the shreds become buildings and trees, a library or a school.
The content of the book must also meet the standards for preschool education, covering topics such as weather, transportation and emotions.
Two decades earlier, content wouldn’t have mattered as much. When Ms. Zimmer’s mother, Connie, founded the program in 1994, there were no curriculum standards in place for preschool education and many centers were not accredited educational programs.
Connie Zimmer’s early role in the arts community began when she founded Dumbarton Concerts in the 1960s, a “boutique” concert venue focused on intimate listening.
The concert series, now approaching its 40 season, has hosted acclaimed musicians and vocalists, including the Vogler Quartet and acapella ensemble, Nordic Voices, but its greatest accomplishment may be its arts outreach program, that reaches over 3,000 children, ages 2 to 5 each year.
When her mother retired three years ago, Ms. Zimmer took over the role of Executive Director of ICIC and has since worked to grow the program.
While the program first focused on improving standards in early childhood education, today, Ms. Zimmer’s focuses on “unlocking” the minds’ of children.
Using your imagination is a skill that is intuitive to children, says Ms. Zimmer, but place a child in front of a television for too long and they may forget what was at first natural.
It isn’t that parents intentionally discourage this skill, but sometimes, what comes naturally to kids is considered bad behavior. To help with this, ICIC also trains teachers and offers workshops that parents and children can attend together. From an investment standpoint, early childhood education produces the “highest return,” said Ms. Zimmer. Recent studies suggest that 80 percent of brain development occurs between the ages of 0 and 5, making preschool and prekindergarten programs the best time to act.
According to the State Education Agency for Adult Education and the Washington Literacy Council, 61 percent of low-income families have no books at home for their children, while 80 percent of child-care centers serving low-income children have no books at all.
Every child who completes the program is given a new backpack full of books — many of the children have never owned a book before.
Students aren’t just learning how to dance, sing and create.
At the start of the three-month program, fewer than 60 percent of students at St. Timothy’s Child Development Center and Randall Hyland Private School met or exceeded grade level art skills. By its end, all students met or exceeded expectations.
By teaching them visualization — a pre-math skill — their math scores showed dramatic improvement as well. Before the program, 30 percent had scores at the grade level standard, by its end, 85 percent.
Community-based learning centers are vital to quality early education, Ms. Zimmer said. They often get to know the children over a long period of time and provide a more personalized education.
Just as Ms. Zimmer inherited ICIC from her mother, many child care centers in the D.C. area are family businesses.
But these centers, such as Big Mama’s in Anacostia, a neighborhood fixture that has been central to the community for years, face new challenges since D.C. introduced universal pre-kindergarten into the public school system.
When Bridget Hall’s parents purchased the property where Big Mama’s is housed, the large brick building was underused. A small liquor store took up meager real estate on the lot. It seemed a natural choice for her mother, to divide the building up, and while a liquor store and a child care center are a an unlikely pair, the two businesses continue to co-exist.
For Big Mama’s, the rush of children into the public system means the loss of government funds.
For families that want their children to remain at local community-based centers, where class sizes are small and educational quality is high, they have to apply for school vouchers, a process that is timely and difficult.
Rather than navigate the red tape, more children are moving into the public system where one-on-one attention is scarce and common core standards require excessive testing.
“Schools are testing at such a young age that children aren’t developing a love of learning because the learning isn’t fun for them anymore,” Ms. Zimmer said.
For the children that do remain at community centers, resources are declining. As the program moves forward, Ms. Zimmer said they will focus on helping the centers that stick around, while also adapting their program to serve public schools as well.
For the coming school year, Ms. Zimmer wants the curriculum to focus on the idea of “journeys,” and the idea that a book can take you anywhere.
While the journey to college may still be a ways down the road, the preschoolers are already setting their sights high.
“Who’s going to college?” Ms. Soumah asked.
Every hand in the class shot up toward the sky.