by Georgia Charter Schools Association
[Editor’s Note: The Utopian Academy for the Arts is a state authorized charter middle school serving grades 6-8 in Riverdale, GA. On what should have been the school’s grand opening day in August, it was hit with series of bureaucratic obstacles that kept its doors shut and resulted in a two-week opening delay. The school features an arts-enriched curriculum.]
By Shakira Ballantyne
My name is Shakira Ballantyne, and I am a teacher of Dance and Dance History at Utopian Academy for the Arts, a new charter school in Riverdale, GA.
As a first-year teacher at Utopian, I’ve had an opportunity most teachers are not given. I have worked with our Curriculum Specialist Dr. Gonzales, to create a foundational dance curriculum for our students, and I have provided input on the dance productions I would like to see at this amazing new school. Having the opportunity to set the tone for the school’s standards has been an exciting and challenging learning experience.
Back in September, the founder of Utopian Academy, Artesius Miller, asked if I would like to accompany him and two of our student ambassadors on a field trip to the State Charter Schools Commission meeting. Two students, Lauryn Allums and Eric Mai, came along to provide the commissioners with an update on what they’ve been doing at Utopian Academy. Mr. Miller explained to the students that we would witness some other hopeful charter schools go through the final petition approval process, just as Utopian had.
As the participants and spectators entered the boardroom and the meeting began, we witnessed three other Georgia charter schools gain approval, and then my students got up to give their speeches.
Ms. Lauryn Allums thanked the commissioners for allowing Utopian Academy to open our doors to her. She talked about her love for drama and how her teacher, Mrs. Ebonne Craft, has helped her grow in the art of acting. Little did I know that a surprise was in store for me.
My dance student, Eric Mai, stood before the commissioners and told them not only how much he loved his school, but that his dance teacher, Ms. Ballantyne, was “amazing.” He told the Commissioners he didn’t think he would like dance but that he took my class to try something new. Eric now not only has a love for dance, but a deep respect for the art. Eric even stopped in the middle of his speech to ask the commissioners, participants, and spectators to give me a round of applause.
Words cannot truly express how Eric’s kind words made me feel. I’ve taught dance for years, but I was teaching children whose parents were paying for my services.
In this day and age, for young men to engage in dance is almost an open invitation for bullying. Boys generally feel as though ballet specifically “is for girls.” Within the first few weeks of school, I knew I had to address these preconceived notions and stereotypes for my students. I created a presentation called “Ballet: Not Just For Girls” to give them an overview of the benefits of dance. My students were surprised to learn about the many athletes who have taken ballet and continue to use ballet to increase agility, flexibility, and focus.
I’m over the moon that I have had such a tremendous impact on at least one student! To hear a young man say that dance class went from being something he just thought he might try to being something he wants take up again next year really touches me. The gratification of knowing that I have changed a student’s outlook about something he thought was negative or uninteresting into something he now wants to get into is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I hope I am able to touch the lives of many more students.
I humbly thank Utopian Academy for the Arts, its CEO, Artesius Miller, and Principal Mr. Birkett for giving me such an amazing opportunity.
Shakira Ballentyne teaches dance and dance history at The Utopian Academy for the Arts, a charter middle school in Clayton County, GA