Three rows of second-graders stand facing the front of the classroom. A speaker emits sounds. First, a door creaking. Then, footsteps thudding and a wolf howling, all followed by the unmistakable opening riff of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
The students put their hands on their knees and take four big steps forward before swinging their arms quickly from side to side. When they’ve finished performing this simplified version of Jackson’s choreography, many fall to the floor, giggling.
Jordan Daugherty teaches dance at Center City Public Charter School’s Petworth campus. Today, her second-grade class is learning the difference between improv and choreography.
“That’s great,” Daugherty says. “Now face me upstage. That was choreography. Remember, improv is when you feel the music and move with it. Choreography is when you make up the moves in advance to match the song.”
At Center City Petworth, all students take dance year-round as a part of their regular schedule. It’s an enrichment course, along with STEM and physical education, all components of the school’s commitment to providing every student with a comprehensive education.
“We believe that we need to develop good citizens and well-rounded people, as well as scholars,” says Principal Nazo Burgy. “To do that, our students need to be socially and emotionally healthy. Play is really important to early childhood, and this is a place where kids can be kids. We have schedules, procedures, and routines, but our hallways are not silent.”
Center City Petworth is part of Center Public Charter Schools, a network of six intentionally small schools operating in four of D.C.’s eight wards. Each school has between 200 and 270 students in grades pre-K through eight and only one class of about 25 students per grade.
The Center City network began when a group of private Catholic schools, experiencing financial problems, was on the verge of being shuttered. Many of these schools, like Petworth, had occupied an important place in the community for nearly a century.
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