When Susan Russo moved to Long Beach, New York, she noticed that there were almost no after-school activities for children and teens with disabilities. Desiring to remedy that, Russo founded The Theresa Academy of Performing Arts in 2009, initially offering one weekly after-school dance class for K–12 students. The positive response from the community was more than she had expected. “I had an overwhelming number of students who wanted to take dance after school,” she says. “I had to turn kids away.”
Now, eight years later, the Theresa Academy has grown to accommodate dozens more students and offers music, theater, yoga and art, in addition to dance. In the dance classes, students always have a one-to-one ratio with class assistants. “Everyone gets a buddy,” says Russo. “Buddies work on redirecting and refocusing the child during class, but also sparking conversation to work on social skills, making eye contact and just being a friend.” The majority of the “buddies” are volunteers from Long Beach Middle School and High School, so Theresa Academy students build connections that carry over into their academic life. “It’s a big boost of self-esteem for my special-ed kids,” she says.
Russo uses a lot of Anne Green Gilbert’s creative-dance curriculum in her lessons. “With Anne’s work, they get to make decisions about how they move,” she says. “For example, ‘Do I want to move on a low level?’ For some of these children, a low level is very comfortable for them because they use a wheelchair. So, they’re making decisions about where they want to be in space.”