Minnesota Conservatory for the Arts instructor Samantha Heaver stood in the theater at Valencia Arts Center on a recent weekday morning, reading over her plans for the morning’s theater class.
Soon her first student, 7-year-old Emma Aldinger, walked in the door, her hair up in a neat braid. Then siblings Lani and Wilt Schul, 7 and 5 years old, joined her.
They stood shyly in the middle of the room, taking in its matte-black walls and floor, the rows of chairs empty of an audience, and the long mirrors they faced.
“This is our first day,” Heaver said, as she gathered the group into a small circle. “We’re just going to get to know each other.”
She told her young students to say their name, age and favorite animal. Then she explained that for the six-week class they were in, Storybook Theatre, they would practice and perform a scene out of a storybook. On the last day, their parents could come and watch.
Maybe they could even do a story about princesses, Heaver said.
“I don’t like princesses,” one of the students piped up.
Heaver laughed, promising to bring a big stack of books they could choose from at the next class.
Down the hall, instructor Jennifer Taber-O’Neill was leading warm-ups with older homeschooled students in a ten-week Dance Sampler class.
And around the corner, more than 20 pieces of art — everything from fabric to finger paint — hung on the wall gallery-style, accentuated with spotlights. By each piece was the name and age of a homeschooled student in the Winona area.
Together, the classes and art show are part of a growing homeschool enrichment program offered at the Minnesota Conservatory for the Arts, designed to provide a variety of arts activities for homeschooling families.
Jamie Schwaba, managing director at the conservatory, said the organization’s work with homeschooled students began last January, when Schwaba was looking for artwork to display on the walls at the Valencia Arts Center.
Each month, a different school’s art is featured at the center, and Schwaba didn’t have any takers for January. So Schwaba, whose son is homeschooled, decided to open the space to homeschoolers.
“It was an easy connection because I already had some connections within the community,” she said.
Then in the fall, the center offered its first theater class for homeschooled students. Schwaba was hoping to get at least 10 kids in the class, but was thrilled — and had to add a second class — when 24 kids registered.
“I had no idea that there was so much interest,” she said. “It just hit a niche and a need.”
The classes are geared specifically toward homeschoolers. They’re offered during the day instead of the late afternoon. They’re affordable, for families with more than one child to enroll. And Schwaba also makes sure the classes’ content is sensitive to the needs of homeschooling families.
Schwaba, who has a background in theater, said performing arts can give kids speaking skills, confidence, and experience performing in front of an audience besides their immediate family.
Theater and dance also provide valuable experience in teamwork and collaboration, a focus of the classes, she said.
In addition, the center can offer something most families don’t have at their homes: a performance space. The Valencia Arts Center hosted a homeschool arts night earlier this month, where homeschoolers could show off their talents to an audience, just like a school variety show.
Schwaba said she’s considering expanding the homeschool enrichment program if there’s enough interest. She hopes to build the program in the future to include visual arts programming, along with a general music class.
“Performing arts are something that’s maybe a little harder to do at home,” she said. “We’re excited to be reaching out.”
So far the classes are a hit with families.
Debbie Davis homeschools her 9-year-old daughter Halli, who loves to dance and sing. Halli is enrolled in the Dance Sampler class this spring, which guides kids through a range of dance styles from ballet to modern dance.
“It’s like the perfect fit for her,” Davis said. “We were so thrilled to have the option to try some of these things.”
Davis said she is pleased with how the Minnesota Conservatory for the Arts, under Schwaba’s direction, has welcomed homeschooling families, making sure the content is appropriate.
“She’s really opened up a lot of opportunities for homeschoolers,” Davis said. “It’s kind of a safe environment for them to just try things.”
The interactive classes also provide a great avenue for fun indoor exercise, Davis said, which can be hard to find during the winter months.
Christa Schul, whose older two kids Lani and Wilt are in the Storybook Theatre class, said she considers arts part of a well-rounded education, but beyond that, it’s the quality instruction at the conservatory that keeps them coming back.
“Jamie hires fabulous teachers — they’re consistently really good,” she said.
Back in the dance studio at Valencia Arts Center, Taber-O’Neill started her class with a dance to an upbeat pop song.
She led the class through the steps together. She instructed them to stand tall and remember to smile, not look miserable.
And she made doubly sure they were comfortable making mistakes, because that’s how people learn to do new things.
“We’re all going to mess up together, right?” Taber-O’Neill said.
She got a chorus of yeahs from the class.
“Good,” she said with a nod. “More power to us.”
And in the theater, instructor Heaver led her young charges in a series of acting games.
She had the students repeat the tongue-twisters, “unique New York,” and “red leather, yellow leather,” as they made hand motions.
“Theater is about acting with your body and your voice,” Heaver said. “It’s about saying the words clearly.”
And, when your actors are 5 and 7 years old, and you all start to say “new neek New Nork,” it’s occasionally about giggling.
“I had no idea that there was so much interest. It just hit a niche and a need.” Jamie Schwaba, MCA managing director