Group gets funding for program helping special needs students

Palmetto High special needs students benefit from a dance program funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation.

The Knight Foundation has granted millions to local arts programs to help elevate Miami into a world-class cultural destination. Those grants include one to Karen Peterson and Dancers Inc., a 22-year-old company that teaches teens with special needs how to dance.

In fact, some of the students will participate in the annual Inclusive Student Talent Showcase, one of which will take place on Mar. 9 at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211 St.

“Ten of the schools we serviced in the past,” Peterson said. “Because of the Knight Foundation, we were able to increase to 20.”

The students have a wide range of disabilities from autism, learning disabilities, physical disabilities, visual, language disabilities and emotional impairment.

The dance program is in Palmetto High, South Dade High, Homestead High, Campbell Middle, Cutler Ridge Middle, Southwest Miami High and Ferguson High. The rest of the schools are in the northern end of the county.

“There are 14 weeks of instruction and the 15th week there is a gala performance,” Peterson said. “All the teachers that work with me are all college-educated dance majors.”

She has five teachers visiting the schools. They work on an hourly basis.

Peterson took a leap of faith that the program would be funded. She started the classes even before the grants were announced.

“If they hadn’t, we would have cut our budgets in some other way,” she said. “We would have cut back to 10 weeks. We still would have maintained 10 schools for 10 weeks. Since we have this additional funding, we’ve been able to provide the program to 20 schools for 15 weeks.”

Peterson believes the program is beneficial to the kids.

The dance program also helps the teens keep in shape at a time when PE programs are being cut.

“First of all they get physical fun with music,” she said. “There is esteem building. Many of the kids who start the program are shy. They learn about creativity; there is also teamwork; they are working together as a group.”

The kids are also filled with the “can do” spirit.

“This increases their engagement with others, they improve their social functioning with others, and they improve their self confidence by knowing they are helping build a dance that will be shown to others,” Peterson said. “They are better prepared to meet the challenges presented by their disabilities because of the demand of organizing music and finding the courage to perform.”

Harsha Shah, a special education teacher at Palmetto High, praised the program.

“In a very short time, I noticed student’s coordination has improved,” Shah said. “Students are happy to learn art and most importantly very excited to find out their own body’s ability to move.”

Peterson not only administers the program, she teaches as well.

“I have a class of 20 autistic young men at Booker T. [Washington High]. Some seem totally out of it,” she said.

“Even if you don’t think you are reaching these individuals who seem to be on another planet, you are. It’s a stimuli you don’t get anywhere else.”

The Knight Foundation awarded Peterson’s group $10,000 and then she needed to match that money. She received some from the Youth Arts Enrichment Program from the Miami- Dade Department of Cultural Affairs. And she is participating in the new fundraising platform that allows small donors to give directly to the arts programs that interest them, through the website

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