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Senator says she’s not clowning around

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Sen. Nancy Rodriguez’s bill that would allocate $100,000 for “circus arts” education was ridiculed when it was filed late last month.

House Republicans were quick to jump, putting out a news release chiding Democrats for, among other things, proposing to spend $100,000 on “clowning” while voting unanimously to pass a bill in the House that excluded private schools from receiving state funding for textbooks.

Readers of the Albuquerque Journal were also critical of the proposal. Nearly all the comments about a story reporting on the circus education bill posted on the Journal’s Facebook page were negative.

Cue the organ music:

“This could also prepare them to serve as legislators,” quipped one woman.

“Sounds like we’re already producing clowns just fine,” another responded.

“Well, you know, we do have a budget surplus. Why not find the most ridiculous and unnecessary ideas to throw money at,” one man wrote.

“Because everyone knows that math and science are overrated, and that performing in the circus is so lucrative,” another reader said sarcastically.

“Is she serious?” another said simply.

But she most certainly is.

“Circus arts are very effective with kids – and they serve all students,” Sen. Rodriguez said. “I don’t think it’s unusual that we appropriate money for this kind of thing. We appropriate money for other things, like dancing and sports.”

Legislative appropriations for athletic fields and equipment are not uncommon, she said. Taxpayer dollars are also used to fund public schools, which provide education in the areas of dance, music, the arts and athletics.

Sylvia Pincheira, 17, practices tumbling moves taught by Colleen McKeown, with Wise Fool New Mexico, at a Wednesday dance class at Capital High. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Sylvia Pincheira, 17, practices tumbling moves taught by Colleen McKeown, with Wise Fool New Mexico, at a Wednesday dance class at Capital High. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“People hear ‘circus’ and they think elephants. That has nothing to do with what we do,” said Amy Christian, artistic/executive director at Wise Fool New Mexico, a Santa Fe nonprofit group that teaches circus arts.

“The intention is not to turn kids into circus artists, but for them to access self-determination to build life skills in the same way that (the National Dance Institute) goes into schools, but they don’t think that every kid is going to be a dancer.”

‘It’s for the whole state’

Sen. Rodriguez said she agreed to sponsor the bill after being approached by Wise Fool New Mexico, then went out to witness first-hand how circus arts education could benefit the children of New Mexico.

“I was truly amazed to see how much they do with kids, especially the special needs people. I was impressed with their work and the outcomes they achieve,” she said, adding that the activities help the students improve their motor skills, balance and focus. “And it takes a lot of discipline. From all indications they are making a big difference.”

Wise Fool wouldn’t be the only potential beneficiary if the bill makes it through the Legislature and is signed by the governor.

“It’s for the whole state,” Rodriguez said.

Besides Wise Fool, Moving Arts Española, ABQ Circus Arts and Project In Motion in Las Cruces all teach circus arts in New Mexico. They would each have an opportunity to apply for funding or work with a school district that receives funding, according to the legislation.

Senate Bill 412, titled simply “An Act Making an Appropriation for Circus Arts Education,” consists of just two sentences. The first states that $100,000 would be appropriated from the general fund to the Public Education Department during the upcoming fiscal year to educate children in circus arts, such as acrobatics, clowning, giant puppetry, juggling, partner acrobatics, stilt-walking, trapeze and aerial fabrics. The second sentence says that any of the $100,000 that is unspent goes back into the general fund.

The bill has been assigned to the Senate Education and Finance committees, but as of late last week, it hadn’t come up for consideration.

The Legislative Education Study Committee’s analysis of the bill says that the state Department of Cultural Affairs called circus arts “a traditional art form” that can benefit students by providing them with a creative outlet that builds confidence and allows them to learn challenging new skills. “Additionally, many of the acts identified in the appropriation, like trapeze, aerial fabric and acrobatics, involve physical activity, resulting in fitness benefits for students,” it says.

But $100,000 isn’t much to work with and not enough to support circus arts programs statewide. The PED would probably take applications for funding from individual school districts and charter schools, the analysis says. “PED may also have to contract directly with one of several nonprofit and for-profit circus arts groups in New Mexico,” it says.

PED would have to set up a procedure for evaluating applicants, the report suggests.

From left, Jeanette Garcia, 16, Marcella White, 17, and Alyssa Gonzales, 17, bust out laughing after they failed at a move taught at Capital High by teachers from Wise Fool New Mexico.

From left, Jeanette Garcia, 16, Marcella White, 17, and Alyssa Gonzales, 17, bust out laughing after they failed at a move taught at Capital High by teachers from Wise Fool New Mexico.

“The department (PED) would be required to create a standards-based application process to evaluate potential service providers, which may prove difficult given a lack of state content standards for circus arts,” it says.

That’s doable, said Wise Fool’s Christian, whose nonprofit has already distinguished itself in the industry. Wise Fool last year was one of a handful of organizations selected for a $10,000 grant from Cirque du Soleil.

The benefits of circus arts have also been recognized by the Children Youth and Families Department, Santa Fe County, the McCune Charitable Foundation and the Frost Foundation, as well as many individual donors that contribute to Wise Fool.

‘An eye-opening experience’

Wise Fool is already in many schools and offers an after-school program at its location on Siler Road. Christian says Wise Fool has for several years visited Santa Fe schools – mostly southside schools like César Chávez and E.J. Martinez elementary schools, Amy Biehl Community School and El Camino Real Academy. They also visit Pojoaque schools and the New Mexico School for the Deaf, and have taken their show on the road to Gallup, Hobbs, Farmington and Ruidoso.

“My goal is to spread this work all over the state because I see how impactful it is,” Christian said. “Everywhere we go, people are begging us to come back. Teachers tell us they’ve never seen their kids work together like that.”

How do they do it?

“The central point is we use circus arts as a way to engage students to build self-confidence, teamwork and trust in their body where they can take risks in a safe environment. One of the most important things is to explore self-expression and to see that they are an important part of a bigger whole,” she said.

A good example of that is building human pyramids, she said.

“You can’t build a pyramid without everyone involved. People may remember the person at the top, but if I’m not the person at the top I’m still part of it and they can’t build it without me,” she said.

Contrary to what some people might think, Christian says, math and science can be taught through the circus arts.

“One of our model programs that we created last year is with New Mexico MESA,” she said of the college prep program whose acronym stands for Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement. “It’s a physics program taught through juggling,” she said.

Typically, Wise Fool leads a 6-8 week program focusing on one or two skills, be it juggling, stilting, unicycling or partner acrobatics.

Teachers at Amy Biehl Community School rave about it.

“Wise Fool gives students an opportunity to learn skills that you don’t get through text books,” said Aviva Markowitz, a fifth-grade teacher at the school. “It teaches perseverance, to be brave and not be afraid to take risks, and to work together. That’s something you don’t get in a standard classroom setting.”

Markowitz says Wise Fool visits her students during art or physical education periods.

“It’s the highlight of their week,” she said.

In art class, they usually work on making giant animal puppets out of paper maché.

“In P.E., they learn different skills that are focused on team-building, working together and challenging them to try new things,” she said. “It’s really an eye-opening experience for our kids to try something that seems so arduous, and then within an hour they find out that they can do it.”

The teacher related a story about one girl who was struggling to stay on stilts.

“It was amazing to see the whole class come around her and encourage her. It really brought my class together,” she said.

David Tolen is a P.E. teacher at Amy Biehl.

“It can be extremely challenging, but it is also extremely rewarding for students that are looking for things different from basketball or football,” he said. “Some kids don’t want to play basketball, but I have not seen that with (circus arts). Everyone wants to get involved.”

Tolen reiterated what others had said about circus arts teaching teamwork, collaboration and self-confidence.

“They have to learn to get over their fears. Once they do, you can see how proud they feel about what they accomplished,” he said. “It takes kids out of their comfort zone and challenges them, but in a positive way.”

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