District 28 program that pairs Northbrook Junior High School, North Shore Academy students recognize
Many will dream of writing and performing in their own theatrical production. That’s no longer the case for students at Northbrook Junior High School and those with special needs at North Shore Academy.
To cap off the academic year on May 26, students from both schools performed skits as a group called Starfish Theater.
“They took full ownership,” said David Downing, co-leader of Starfish Theater and a drama teacher at Northbrook Junior High School. “They write the scripts; they set up the rehearsals; they organize the props. It’s like working with adults, and they are so proud of the work they do here.”
Steve Donart, co-leader of Starfish Theater and a teacher at North Shore Academy, said he started the program in 2011 so students of different backgrounds not only to collaborate on writing and drama, but also to develop an understanding among one another and foster friendship.
Around that time, the idea behind the program first came to life when a North Shore Academy student performed in a show with classmates from their home district. Donart said those on staff at the middle school started looking at how to foster additional opportunities for learning and student engagement.
Donart said the collaboration and leadership exhibited by this year’s student ensemble has been crucial to the program’s success.
“I don’t think it was a fluke that [students] chose ‘perspective’ as part of their theme, because the kids understand that everybody’s brain works differently, everybody’s background is different, and that’s part of what makes them unique,” he said. “It was their idea and I think we did very little teaching, more following them. They developed connections, friendships and relationships throughout the process.”
Northbrook Junior High School eighth-grade student Allanah Grant Elster said this year’s theme was fitting.
“We all worked together to figure out the theme,” she said. “There were a couple of ideas, but we eventually settled on ‘perspectives’ because everyone related to it and everyone had personal stories about.”
Those in the program participated in 10 rehearsals leading up to the final showcase of their skits, and prepared scripts, props, costumes and more.
Northbrook Junior High School eighth-grade student Abby Tzinberg said the group worked hard to make sure the production went well.
“Everyone was so flexible and got to know each other’s quirks and how to work around them,” she said. “It was really amazing seeing how everyone was able to just walk in the drama room, be together and be a unit.”
Downing said students from the two schools helped one another come out of their comfort zones as they performed in the ensemble.
“Within a month or two, everybody is relaxed and comfortable with each other and ready to try new things,” he said, adding how uplifting it is seeing what Northbrook Junior High School students can bring out in kids from North Shore Academy.
This year’s ensemble received a Best Practice Award from the Association of Parents and Staff of the Northern Suburban Special Education District on May 17.
The award honors outstanding programs and educators that promote understanding and inclusion of individuals with special needs.
“We loved the idea of the partnership between North Shore Academy and Northbrook Junior High School,” a statement from the Association of Parents and Staff said. “… Student mentors take leadership roles throughout the year and all gain increased levels of patience and compassion from the experience of working on the end of year production. This is a program that could easily be duplicated in other schools which is another reason it was chosen.”
Starfish Theater programming is made possible through funding provided by the North Shore Special Education District Foundation, a non-profit organization aiming to enhance the quality of lives for special needs students and their families.