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Building Students’ Self-Esteem through Circus Arts

CIS Partners with CircEsteem on the West Side

Outside of P.E. and recess, supporting students’ physical health needs during remote learning can be challenging for schools to accomplish. Partner schools at CIS of Chicago have shared that keeping students active, meeting their social-emotional needs, and giving them a space for fun are critical ways to increase their academic engagement. In response, CIS of Chicago’s Partnership Team has supported partners in their development of online programming, and the team has even connected with new community partners, like CircEsteem.

CircEsteem is a nonprofit focused on fostering youth self-esteem and mutual respect through circus arts. Their teaching artists were seeking a school on the West Side to support, and they looked to CIS of Chicago to inform which school would be a good fit. CIS’s Partnership Team investigated school priorities and student needs and found a match at Hefferan Elementary in West Garfield Park.

CIS of Chicago Student Supports Manager Kenneth Stratton

Hefferan is part of CIS’s Intensive Program, which means there is a dedicated CIS of Chicago Student Supports Manager, Kenneth Stratton, based at the school. In addition to a strong CIS partnership, there was also an interest from school leadership. Hefferan’s principal had mentioned to Kenneth that she wanted to expose her students to new experiences and expand their worldview.

As a result, CIS of Chicago was able to bring CircEsteem to Hefferan and provide long-term, impactful programming throughout the 2020–21 schoolyear. Currently, CircEsteem meets multiple times a week with Hefferan students, mainly seventh and eighth graders. And according to Kenneth, the sessions allow the students to let loose, laugh, and have fun. In a year when many students have taken on additional responsibilities — and have felt the stress of a pandemic and adjusting to a new way of learning — CircEsteem gives them the chance to just be kids.

Each program begins with a check-in and movement activity, and then, the CircEsteem teaching artists lead the students in a social circus lesson, whether that be juggling, clowning, or acrobatics. The sessions end with snaps, where Hefferan students share words of encouragement with each other. Students not only build their self-esteem, but they also learn to trust themselves and each other and explore their own creativity.

In remote learning, CircEsteem and our Student Supports Manager Kenneth have had to be innovative with giving students access to the props they need. CircEsteem sent prop kits to Hefferan at the beginning of the schoolyear, but just in case students weren’t able to pick up their prop kit, the teaching artists always provide alternative ways for the students to create their own. For example, in one juggling activity, students were encouraged to use balled up socks in place of a prop.

At Hefferan, Kenneth says that his students who are diverse learners particularly enjoy the program, and they look forward to biweekly visits from CircEsteem. Their Homework & Circus Work curriculum is so popular that it is even used as a quarterly attendance incentive. With the challenges that this schoolyear has posed, CIS of Chicago and Hefferan Elementary have found a strong partner in CircEsteem. Together, they are able to support students’ academic development, build their self-esteem, and give them a space to have fun.