'You can dance if you want to' - East Hartford's Sunset Ridge School focuses on arts and world languages
By Corey AmEnde - Staff Writer
East Hartford - posted Fri., Sep. 20, 2013
If a student were to get caught dancing in a classroom in most schools, they might be quickly waltzed down to the principal's office. At East Hartford's Sunset Ridge School on Forbes Street, however, dancing is actually encouraged as part of the curriculum.
Whether it’s ballroom dancing, hip-hop dancing or letting your fingers do the dancing in music keyboard lab, students at Sunset Ridge Academy of Arts and World Languages have plenty of choices for classes called production companies that help make learning fun.
“We tap into kids' interests to try to motivate them,” said Emil Kopcha, the principal at Sunset Ridge.
Sunset Ridge is a choice school serving grades four through six that opened in 2010. Kopcha said the school is “basically first come and first served,” with signups for the following year usually in April. The school serves about 260 students and runs an extended day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The production companies are offered during the last hour of each school day and switch halfway through the year. Students can explore a wide variety of topics and interests such as puppetry, origami, world drumming and Rappers Delight, to name a few. The school holds a production company night out at various times throughout the year to give students an opportunity to showcase what they’ve been learning and to encourage parental involvement.
“Last year we had 35 events across the year, and we counted the attendance. It was over 4,000 across the year, so we have good family engagement,” said Kopcha. “We want to build that community of kids but also with the parents that support them and are there for their kids.”
In addition to the production companies, all students must perform in either band or orchestra. “We try to have them learn that the discipline of how to play an instrument can transfer over to the discipline of their studies as well,” said Kopcha.
Another unique feature about Sunset Ridge is the focus on arts and world languages. Starting in the fourth grade, students can take one semester of Chinese and one semester of Spanish if their reading abilities are at a level where they can take a world language. In sixth grade they can chose one language to study for the entire year.
“That puts them kind of a notch ahead of their peers in the district, because they will eventually be in advanced classes when they get to middle school and high school in world languages,” said Kopcha. Sunset Ridge is one of only four elementary schools in the entire state that offer Chinese and Spanish.
“This is a very unique program,” said Wenching Chiang, a Chinese teacher at Sunset Ridge. “Not only do they start learning the language this young in school, we incorporate cultural awareness in the learning.” The students' opportunity to learn about the Chinese culture is enhanced by a partnership with a sister school in Weifang, China. The students at Sunset Ridge and in Weifang record their voices speaking in English and Chinese and exchange them with each other.
“We’re also creating art projects together with a common theme, and then we have the kids in China rendering with what they feel should show that theme, and we’ll be exchanging things together,” said Kopcha.
There is also an integrated learning approach at Sunset Ridge where art, music and physical education teachers will rotate through the school and work with classroom teachers to teach lessons. For example, a music teacher might collaborate with a fourth-grade teacher to help teach math through song. This methodology helps reinforce the school’s theme of arts and world languages.
“We really try to hook the students and motivate them to experience learning in not just one way," said Kopcha, adding that there are multiple ways to learn something.
The feedback on the school has been positive, with Kopcha adding that, “we’ve had many parents who would love to see this school extend up through higher grade levels to seventh and eighth.” And their wish may not be too far-fetched. Kopcha said there is a committee being formed in the district with Superintendent Nathan Quesnel to look at the possibilities of expanding the school either to seventh and eighth grades or to younger grades.
“Right now we’re in the planning stages,” said Kopcha. “Our goal is for next school year to have some kind of plan in place of how we’re going to make this grow.”