Four students waited patiently in a classroom recently, fidgeting just a bit with their fedoras and neckties. It was unusual attire for their school, which is the San Diego SOAR Academy site in East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility.
"Is my tie straight?" one asked a teacher. Another smiled as he told a visitor that what he's about to do has helped ease his shyness.
It was time. Teacher assistant Veronica Lopez welcomed the teenage boys out to the common room so they could demonstrate their newfound dancing skills they learned from Lopez.
"Maybe next time some of you will try it," Lopez told students in the audience. "This teaches how to respect each other and how to be a team."
Any nerves among the dancers gave way to huge smiles as the boys performed a disco routine to the Bee Gees hit Stayin' Alive. Next up was a routine to Frank Sinatra's New York, New York.
After the performance, one father said he was so overcome with emotion that he cried watching his son dance.
"We really are thankful because you give them the opportunity to grow up," he said. "It's just amazing."
Lopez studies dance at Southwestern College and City College, and proposed the extracurricular activity to Site Administrator Nathan Head. She began sharing her love of dance with students at the facility last summer, and it caught on immediately.
"I encourage our teachers and staff members to teach to their passions, and Veronica is passionate about dance," Head said. "The dancing is character-building, it shows how to treat someone with respect, it's an outlet, and it's something for them to look forward to at school. This is a really institutionalized place, and we do what we can to soften these walls. To see them laugh and smile, it's worth it."
East Mesa teachers agreed
"We see a difference, 100 percent," said humanities teacher Matt Kruger. "It gives them so much confidence."
One of the students said that when he dances, he feels free.
The dancing also helps break down barriers among students, with Head noting that two of the boys currently in the dance group are from rival gangs who have put aside their differences while learning together at the school.
Lopez shares a variety of dance styles with the students, and her passion for the art is contagious. One 17-year-old student said, "I dance to make the whole place happier."
"Every student, no matter their circumstances, benefits from extracurricular opportunities that expose them to the arts," said Dr. Paul Gothold, San Diego County Superintendent of Schools and County Board of Education President Guadalupe González.
San Diego SOAR Academy is one of the San Diego County Office of Education's Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS) that serves detained students in classrooms at Kearny Mesa and East Mesa juvenile detention facilities as well as Camp Barrett and Girls Rehabilitation Facility.
JCCS provides a fully accredited educational program for school-age youth who are either wards of the court or have been referred by social services, probation, or one of the 42 school districts in San Diego County. Services are provided to students who are incarcerated, pregnant or parenting, in foster care, expelled, chronically truant, in drug treatment centers and group homes for neglected or abused children, and experiencing homelessness.
JCCS serves nearly 5,000 students per year at more than 20 sites across the county.
Photo: Veronica Lopez before the dance exhibition.