Youth Programs – Interview with Valerie Salstrom of the Junior Jitterbugs in Cleveland, OH.

Original interview from 2012.

Do you work with a particular school or group?

Primarily with one school, but other kids have joined through family connections (siblings, cousins) and word of mouth. The group is very established and has a good reputation now and is very popular. The program started 7 years ago as part of a grant, teaming up with a fine arts instructor. The project began with a 4 year grant and has grown from there.

Do you teach at the school or at your own space?

I meet the kids after school and walk them to a space nearby. It’s great to use rec centers, libraries and other community-oriented spaces because it makes the group very present in the community. The exposure for the group is terrific. The school has a lot of existing after school programs on-site so the nearby rec center is the next best thing.

Did you seek out a school or group based on specific demographics?

The school is in an area that is in need of programs directly after school. In addition to walking the kids from school to the program, the kids are given a snack and a drink before any dancing takes place. This is a big part of the incentive for the program since the kids look forward to that snack time and also to the social time that goes with it. It helps to build that sense of community and it also provides something important to kids who might not have otherwise had anything to eat after school. The program runs from 4pm to 5:15 and the snack is really important to help the kids keep going after an afternoon of classes.

Were you specifically looking to reach children in the black community? Have there been any racial issues?

The primary school where the Junior Jitterbugs has grown is ethnically very mixed and diverse. Most of the children do not come specifically from a single ethnic background, but from families that are a mix of African American, Hispanic, Ukrainian, etc. Because this community is so diverse there have not been any racial issues, everyone gets along wonderfully. There tends to be more discrepancy between the ages of the children. It’s in the nature of the older kids to feel “too cool”, snobby or cliquey toward the younger kids, though that’s something that I have worked very carefully to do away with.

I really feel it’s important that you have to care deeply about the kids and about the overall community. The program isn’t only about learning to dance, it’s about creating outstanding citizens out of these children. I guide the kids to be excellent citizens, to work together, to respect one another, and, for the older kids, to look out for the younger kids,. I also guide them to show exemplary manners and behavior in general as models in the community. I am very proud the role models that develop in these students.

The children practice being grateful in the program. I help them enhance their social skills, communication skills, and the sense of camaraderie and feeling part of a connected community.

There is a “two strike” policy for this program. When the children sign up, they agree to a contract outlining what behavior is or isn’t acceptable; two strikes and they’re out, though they are allowed to rejoin the program the next semester if they mend their ways. This has been very effective and there have been students who have “struck out” and been removed but have rejoined and had success the next time around.

How did you initially approach the school, group, kids and or parents? Nature of the proposal. Did they need much convincing?

Connection to the school was already established.

There is an Open House in the school library every year and there is a Junior Jitterbugs table that offers information and sign up for the program. I have a close tie with the school. I am able to show videos, speak with the parents and then follow up with an information session with the kid and parents that includes a small lesson for them to all take together.

How often do you meet with the group and for how long?

The group meets twice a week on Tuesdays and Wednesdays throughout the school year, from 4pm to 5:15. I also runs it for free during the summer because the kids truly love it, demand it and need it.

How is the program funded? Is your time donated or does someone pay for the program?

There are lots of ways to get funding. Much of this is run through donations. I promote the program and requests donations and many people are generous. You don’t need to be a non-profit organization to get these donations. You just have to connect with what’s called a Fiscal Agent. These are agents who are established with Non-Profit status and they can act on your behalf to manage the donations.

An important trick is to connect with people who work for large companies where, if the employee makes a donation to the program, the company will be willing to match what the employee has offered. Through parents or existing Lindy Hoppers, you can collect donations into one pool which the employee will put forward as their donation and the company will then match the greater total. For a program like this, you have to do whatever it takes to get the funding to help the kids. Ask, be tenacious, it pays off!

Have you had any challenges with boy girl ratios?

Surprisingly, the group attracts more boys than girls. Perhaps because boys are often more accustomed to joining school teams and many boys register together with their buddies.

How have the kids managed with boy:girl interactions? Any challenges? Strategies for this?

At first there are inevitably issues, no matter what the age is. I focus first on leading and following and action and reaction, without dividing in to boys and girls. If the kids have a chance to do some action and reaction exercises with peers of the same sex first, they transition smoothly into working with the opposite sex. I really drill them on the lead/follow ideas and then tricks them so that they don’t really notice the transition when the time comes to dance with real partners. I do a lot of these exercises before breaking into the roles, and when I do match the boys and girls together I give them a few minutes to make lots of fuss about “cooties” to get it all out of their system together, and then they move on, ready to take the dance roles more seriously.

Are there any particular teaching methods or curriculum that you’ve found successful that could help other similar groups?

Food is a huge motivator. These kids are at or below poverty level so offering a snack is one of the primary sells for the program. It’s also helpful to harness their rambunctious behaviour. Sometimes I have them do laps or jumping jacks to give them an outlet for their energy. It’s also important to change up what you’re doing as often as possible since their attention span is shorter than adults.

Positive “ticketing” works really well with the children. Kids love to have something to work towards. Every time they do something positive, they get a ticket. If they get 3 tickets, they receive some sort of reward at the end of the class. Whatever the motivator is (stickers, tickets, etc.) this is very helpful for giving the students a chance to focus on something and to feel good about what they’ve accomplished. They also like the positive attention.

You can also really use the kids’ help. Give them jobs or assignments or something that they can be in charge of. Sign up sheets, setting up equipment, putting out snacks, etc.

Any other general comments or advice?

Kids really want a chance to just hang out. At the beginning, it’s good to give them that time and give them a 5 minute, 2 minute, 1 minute call before the dancing starts. They appreciate that time and it becomes a form of mutual respect that they’re allowed to take that time and that they’re given notice before that time ends.

If you’re thinking about doing a program like this, JUST DO IT. Don’t hesitate. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You can fix it as things move forward. Just start it. The kids out there need you NOW. To get started, just pick up the phone and make some calls. These could be cold calls or cold contacts. Get the ball rolling right away. Some school or group or person will say yes, don’t be afraid to ask the schools, churches, or existing groups about this. The only way to get started is to take the action. It’s not as hard to get the parents’ or schools’ permission as people may think. Start it, you can do anything and you can make an amazing impact on the lives of children who need it!

In terms of the relationship with the children, using “Ms. Salstrom” is perhaps too serious, but “Valerie” is a bit too casual. I usually recommend using “Miss Valerie” as a good balance between the two. It gives you status of the instructor but without losing all intimacy.

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