By Graham Shelby
The story of what’s been happening at Louisville’s Atkinson Elementary School – well, it starts like a lot of school stories. But just so you know, there’s a twist. The west end school serves some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. More than ninety percent of Atkinson students qualify for free and reduced lunches.
Dewey Hensley took over as principal in 2006. On standardized tests Atkinson was, at the time, the lowest-performing elementary school in Kentucky. Hensley says he was told that the kids were hard to work with. But the reality turned out to be different. “You know, I found the children here to be sensitive and fragile,” he says. “And I found them to be extremely resilient and extremely responsive when they’re given a challenge.”
Hensley saw his mission as not just improving test scores, but changing the culture of Atkinson. So in addition to bringing in new staff and reducing class size, partnering with U of L, Humana and other organizations, Hensley made a very different kind of change. And here’s where that twist happens, here in the school gym, where a teacher is instructing students to find partners.
Actually, what’s happening at Atkinson isn’t the twist. On this day, it’s the merengue. “The Merengue is like you’re marching,” the instructor says, “The steps look real simple like this. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8.” The children join in, counting their steps.
At Atkinson, students like fifth-grader Teanna Alexander learn ballroom dancing. “We do the cha-cha, the swing, the foxtrot. The hardest part is you have to dance with a boy.”
The ballroom program focuses on fifth graders, so the interactions between boys and girls can be awkward. But Principal Hensley says that’s part of the point: “We decided to teach ballroom dancing because one of the important things we want to be able to do is to teach our kids how to navigate appropriately in our society. One of the things we want them to experience is formality and the appropriate touch and the appropriate direction and the ability to follow directions that are all trademarks of ballroom dancing.”
Hensley got the idea to start the program after he saw the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom. It’s about a similar program in New York City. Atkinson uses instructors from the Success for Life Ballroom program. One of those instructors is Stephen Gilchrist. He says, “Teaching kids, fifth graders, how to ballroom dance is like teaching a foreign language. So you just have to stay at it. You teach more in a group structure. Reward the ones who are doing great, encourage the other ones to step up. Eventually, we’ll break off and take the ones who are better at certain dances and allow them to perform.”
Atkinson’s ballroom program culminates in a dance recital for parents, complete with a formal dinner. But does ballroom dancing make better students and, eventually, better citizens?
The overall changes at the school have dramatically improved Atkinson’s test scores. Principal Dewey Hensley doesn’t have any hard data to demonstrate the benefits of ballroom, but for him, the anecdotal evidence is enough, especially during the recitals. “When my kids are up there dancing and their parents are in the audience tears streaming down their faces, and the kids are having clearly just such a meaningful experience, that’s more than enough reason to do this year after year.”
The big night is scheduled for March. Back in the gym, the kids line up in rows. Boys on one side, girls on the other. They take each other by the hand and practice their new moves.