U.S. Youth Programs Receive Nation’s Top Honor

District’s CityDance among Winners Touted at White House

First lady Michelle Obama recognized 12 creative youth development programs at the White House at an event that honored the nation’s best from a pool of more than 285 nominees.

The winners of the 2015 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award received their honors on Tuesday, Nov. 17 which also included one international program from Yoro, Honduras.

The awardees were recognized by Obama for using “engagement in the arts and humanities to generate outcomes including: increases in academic achievement, graduation rates, communication and performance skills and cultural awareness.”

The ceremony also included a live performance by Rosie’s Theater Kids of New York who showcased their talents with a diverse medley of songs and remarks by Andre Massey, Jr., a member of Deep Center in Savannah, Georgia, who shared how poetry changed his life.

The District’s sole winner, Northwest-based CityDance DREAM Program, received the only honor presented to a dance program among a group of awardees whose foci included theatre, mentoring, creative writing, teen docent work, arts and science and leadership skills.

Alexe Nowakowski, CityDance executive director, shared her excitement and talked about the many benefits of the after school program.

“DREAM was founded in 2005 as a pilot program and originally our goal was to bring the arts to underserved communities in the District,” she said. “But we soon realized that what we were providing was a lot more than dance. We found ourselves serving much broader needs as it became apparent that for our children to succeed, we had to address the needs of the whole child. That’s why we included new facets to the program in 2008 that continue today: mentoring, tutoring and community projects.”

DREAM programs have expanded since its initial days and can now be accessed in every ward in the District except Wards 3 and 5, reaching over 160 children in grades 3 through 12.

Nowakowski said several factors have helped the program garner success.

“We have a deep commitment to our students and have been able to create a culture and environment where they feel safe, where they’re able to create a long-lasting relationship with a trusted adult, where they can develop a sense of belonging and membership, not only with their peers from their own schools but with peers in the entire program,” she said.

“I think we’re unique in that we have youth who come from all across the District who work collaboratively for specific goals, including our culminating program when our youth perform at a Washington Wizards game during half time,” she added.

“Young people face so many challenges during both childhood and adolescence that are sometimes so overwhelming that they impact their grades and behavior. Often their parents want to pull them out of the program when such problems occur. But we try to keep them with us because dance and the other services we offer keep them focused, encouraging them to stay in school and to work even harder.”

DREAM Program Director Kelli Quinn and high school senior, Valeria Cruz, a participant in the program since the fifth grade, attended the awards ceremony.

Nowakowski had nothing but praise for Valeria.

“She [Valeria] was the reason we revised our goals and programming. She was struggling in school academically and at risk of being pulled out of the program. She was the first of many who came to us when the problems of life became overwhelming. We realized that she trusted us and it spurred our larger vision. Dance can serve as a pathway for students to realize their dreams. Now she’s preparing for college and we’re helping her with applications. That’s what it’s all about,” Nowakowski said.

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D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Award-winning journalist and 21-year Black Press veteran, book editor, voice-over specialist and college instructor (Philosophy, Religion, Journalism). Before joining us, he led the Miami Times to recognition as NNPA Publication of the Year.

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