- Associated Press - Sunday, May 28, 2017

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Martha Sandven is no stranger to linking academic, social and behavioral successes to the arts. The English department chairman at Ramay Junior High School in Fayetteville founded Chameleon, a Kansas City children’s theater, in 1994 and helped run it for nearly 10 years.

“Its mission was to teach skills for life, school and work through the arts,” Sandven told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (https://bit.ly/2rmbZ1c ). “We did after-school programs, we worked in group homes, we worked in lock-down facilities, we had summer and weekend programs. We also produced original plays on social issues for kids, (hired) professional actors and toured them in schools. We did plays on bullying, gun violence, teenage pregnancy and peer pressure - we covered the gamut.”

Sandven found the work rewarding but exhausting. She estimates that 40 percent of her time was spent writing grants and measuring outcomes. She often found herself sleeping in the office to get grants turned in on time.

“We were having incredible success getting students away from gangs, we were having incredible success seeing reduced recidivism among our kids involved in the court system, we were seeing improvement in academic performance - we were seeing all of these great outcomes, but what we didn’t see was enough growth in literacy. So at that point, I took a step back and said, ‘I want to be working with fewer students and try to help grow literacy.”

So Sandven soon found herself at the University of Arkansas, acquiring her master’s degree in secondary English, thanks to the Fayetteville contacts she had made over the years she was in the same program at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, as Fayetteville High School graduate and directing student Jason Moore (who went on to helm Avenue Q on Broadway and the hit musical comedy movie Pitch Perfect). Two of the people she worked with at Chameleon were also from Fayetteville.

“They said, ‘You know, Martha, Fayetteville is the new frontier. It is where you need to be. There are people who will appreciate your vision there, and there are kids that need your help.’ So I said, ‘I’ll come down for a visit,’ and I never left. They were absolutely right. Fayetteville is very supportive of innovative ways to help people at risk and to empower people who want to help themselves and to succeed.”

After graduating from the UA, Sandven was thrilled to land at Ramay Junior High, where a seventh-grade class was added just last year.

“(Fourth and seventh grade) are really key in terms of kids’ cognitive development and their emotional development, so those would be my two groups that I would really want to work with if I’m going to make a huge impact. I just feel that we have so many kids at risk socially at the junior high school level.”

Fifty-three percent of Ramay students have registered for free or reduced lunch. Sandven points out that the actual percentage that are eligible is probably much higher - by junior high school, she says, many students don’t return the paperwork because of the stigma attached to receiving subsidized lunches.

Sandven knew that high poverty rates and at-risk children are linked, because she had successfully worked with the same population during her time with Chameleon in Kansas City. She also believed that conditions at Ramay were perfect for creating a similar arts-based after-school program, so, last year, The Breakfast Club was born.

This year’s group showed off what they had been working on all year at a recent performance of their adaptation of Arkansas author Darcy Pattison’s “The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman” for students at Holt Middle School. The energy and creativity of the group is on full display, the large group of Ramay students collaborate to tell Oliver’s story as he travels across the United States. The story telling method is incredibly inventive, with students using their own bodies as set pieces. Trees are formed when students stand tall, pom poms waving above their heads; a goldfish with rainbow socks swims across the stage; there is an opera singer, a jazz band, fireworks, and french accents. Sandven’s determination to involve all members of the Club in some way is evident. The Holt students are entranced, and it is not difficult to understand the appeal of being part of the Club.

“At first, we had a lot of kids interested, but when they realized there was actually going to be an expectation of participation, we had a bunch of people exit,” says Sandven with a smile. “Then we had a core group. Because it was just me running it, my goal had been to limit it to 24 kids.”

Sandven said after the first “lunchbox theater” -an event where Breakfast Club members hand out tickets to two friends, who then meet in the multipurpose room to have lunch while watching a production - interest in the club exploded. She found herself with twice the number of kids trying to sign up at the beginning of the next semester.

“That’s when Mary Smith, the art teacher, stepped up and said, ‘I understand what you have going here, and I want to be a part of it. I’ll take half the kids.’ And then we boomed to 60 kids.”

With the help of the Fayetteville Public Education Foundation, Sandven applied for and received a generous grant from the Walton Family Foundation, which allowed the program to expand.

“We were particularly excited to support this project because we know that for some students, our public schools are the only point of access for the arts,” says Foundation executive director Horne-Brooks. “Art programs in the public schools are known to increase student engagement, encourage consistent attendance, and improve reading comprehension, all which help to bridge the achievement gap, a win-win for both the students and our community.”

Now double the original size, the club members were separated into those who wanted to be on stage and those who wanted to work behind the scenes to design puppets, costumes or scenery. Part of the reason for The Breakfast Club’s popularity is that it offers a wide variety of projects to work on, ensuring there is one for every interest. This year, the group developed and produced a videotaped puppet show and adapted two children’s books - one for the stage and one that they filmed with stop-motion animation.

Sandven says that the positive changes that result from student involvement in the club are undeniable.

“Our biggest outcome is reduced truancy,” she says. “Truancy is a major indicator for dropouts. One of the norms of The Breakfast Club is that you cannot come if you weren’t at school that day. We saw students who had spotty attendance start to have better and better attendance records.” Sandven also began to see reduced class zeroes, which lead to improved academic performance and class scores. Most importantly, the literacy gains that Sandven had pursued through Chameleon appeared to be happening through The Breakfast Club.

“I started getting emails from the administration saying, ‘Is so-and-so in the Breakfast Club? Because we’ve heard that she is doing so well, and she really doesn’t need to be in her (remedial reading class) - do you agree?’” says Sandven. “I was becoming a part of that dialogue, which was great.”

“I would say, since its inception, we’re seeing way more students have an opportunity to be involved in some sort of a team activity,” says Ramay vice principal Katie Oliver. “And because of the grant and the funding that we have, it’s accessible to students who might otherwise have transportation issues. It’s really allowed a lot of students get involved in Ramay, which I think is fabulous - because that extends the opportunity for them to feel a part of a family, a part of a community, and it brings that Ramay culture. They’re invested in our school, and they are striving for excellence not only in the club - it translates to their classroom as well.”

Last year, Ramay adopted the Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) program school wide and has been tracking all levels of behavioral infractions ever since.

“This made it easy for me to look at Breakfast Club members and see what was going on with them in terms of behaviors,” Sandven says. “You can’t come to Breakfast Club if you’ve had an in-school suspension, and you can’t participate if you’ve had an out-of-school suspension. We started seeing reduced behavior referrals because the kids really wanted to be in the program.”

But perhaps the most meaningful gains the program has provided to students are social, as illustrated by the story of how the club got its name.

“We were talking about the nature of our group,” says Sandven. “Someone said, ‘We would never all hang out together, and we would not sit together at lunch, we wouldn’t hang out in the hallways, we wouldn’t all be listening to the same music. We’re all very different, and yet this place brings us all together, and, when we’re here, it’s like we belong. Because we all belong to each other.’ That conversation led to a discussion about how the kids in the movie The Breakfast Club figure out the same thing.”

“Many kids this age are wrestling with their identity,” says Ramay art teacher and Breakfast Club co-leader Mary Smith. “The drama group is so much more welcoming and creative, so they think, ‘I’m not weird. I’m like all of these other people.’”

Smith says she has witnessed previously shy students become outspoken leaders as they become more involved. Eighth grader Sofia Calderon says that she has taken on more and more of a leadership role at her volunteer job at the Fayetteville Public Library since participating in the club.

“Sometimes I have to be the leader of workshops for (the library),” says Sofia. “I have to tell the kids when to do the things and how to do them, and things like that.”

“Many of these students started out shy, and now they’re leaders,” Smith says. “So to go from, ‘I not only have a voice, but I can also lead,’ to me, that’s the magic that keeps teachers in the business.”

“I can’t really explain it, but it’s like we’re a family,” says eighth-grader José Ochoa. “I enjoy being by myself a lot, but nobody can really do everything on their own. People feed off of each other.” He says he has a heightened sense of independence and responsibility thanks to the club. “(Ms. Sandven, Ms. Smith, and Ms. Molly) push you to the point where you don’t really need them to push you anymore. You’re able to be independent, and you’re able to help people without being asked.”

Sandven hopes to eventually expand the program: She would like to add more tech components and, more importantly, an all-day summer opportunity, a time when, like the after-school hours, children are often unsupervised and most at-risk.

“There would be a variety of community field trips and outings for the students,” Sandven imagines. “They (would be) getting hands-on experience with our library, our swimming pools, they’re meeting our police and fire department, they’re being kind of like ambassadors from Ramay Junior High and really getting to know all of the resources that are out there.”

This requires funding, of course, which remains a hurdle despite the generosity of the Walton Family Foundation, the assistance of the Fayetteville Public Education Foundation and the strong support of both the Ramay and school district administrations.

“Our school district has supported this, because we show we’re tied to 16 essential math and English standards,” says Sandven. “Our administration is incredibly supportive. Dr. John L Colbert has provided the busing that has made this program possible. We really appreciate the administrators at the building level, but also at the district level that have been so supportive of The Breakfast Club.”

The group currently has enough funding to get them through next year - but beyond that is a question mark.

One thing is clear, though. The benefits of this program are enormous. Just ask any of its members.

“It gives you a chance to find yourself, I think,” Jose says. “I used to have, kind of like, anger issues and stuff. I would run away lots of times. I haven’t done that since starting The Breakfast Club. I have people to rely on now.”


Information from: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.nwaonline.com

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