Special needs students at Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary embraced by peers during play performance
Little Red Riding Hood, known to most as 7-year-old Tha’lesha Campbell, skipped across the stage smiling.
She waited for the prompt from her drama teacher and play narrator, Jeff Jordan, and recited her lines before running off stage like she’d rehearsed. The crowd laughed and cheered in response.
“It really was wonderful,” said her mother, Candee Shuler. “She was just so excited, and I love to see her being happy.”
Student performances are the norm at Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary, but this one brought some teachers and parents tears of happiness.
The district’s flagship arts elementary school has about 40 students who have serious physical and mental disabilities, and they were the starring actors in a play watched by the entire school on Friday.
“It teaches them self-esteem,” said Jill Sneed, one of the school’s special education teachers. “They get that acceptance from their peers that comes naturally, and you can’t teach that.”
Jordan started organizing the plays several years ago when the school started a drama class for special-needs students. He figures out what every child can do, and he designs a performance to showcase their skills. The class uses the entire school year to prepare for the 30-minute production.
“We try to find a place for every kid to have something,” he said.
For some students, it’s an accomplishment to simply be on stage wearing a costume. Students who can learn lines had brief speaking parts, while others made animal noises.
Non-verbal students had roles, too. One boy who liked to jump was given the part of a frog, and a handful wore duck costumes and walked hand-in-hand on stage.
Jordan facilitated the play from beginning to end by narrating and acting alongside the cast. Students immersed themselves in their roles, and the enthusiasm was contagious and entertaining. At one point, all of the school’s nearly 600 students rose to do the chicken dance, and they later clapped in unison as Little Red Riding Hood, a frog, monkey and others grinned and boogied on stage.
School Principal Cathie Middleton said she wants the school to have a culture where everyone is special, accepted and respected, and the special needs students’ play is one way that message is reinforced.
“Not everyone is alike, and that’s OK,” she said.
Cindy McCown, the district’s department director for students with special needs, said the school is a showcase for diversity and equal access. She wasn’t aware of another district elementary school that hosts this kind of performance.
“It brings a lot of awareness of what our students are able to do,” she said.
Beth Bonacci, whose autistic son played a chicken in the production, said she loved seeing how much the rest of the school appreciated and supported their friends on stage. She felt proud watching her son stand in front of hundreds of people and speak into a microphone.
“The whole school comes together to support our special kids,” she said.
Campbell received a bouquet of flowers from her first-grade teacher after the performance and burst into tears. Each of her first-grade classmates made her a card, and others wanted to give her hugs and tell her “Good job!”
Jordan said it’s rewarding to see students enjoy themselves and make progress.
“It’s been a great way to celebrate these kids and to show they are an important part of our school and that we learn something valuable from them,” he said. “It’s been one of the greatest things I’ve done in 20 years.”
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.