One Woman’s Quest to Inspire Girls To Dance Their Way To Education Success

May 16, 2013  |  

As a math teacher, she watched worriedly as her minority students floundered or underperformed in class. She recalled her own high school experience and how she had always strove for a 95 or 100 in her class. Her students were simply happy to receive the minimum grade to pass a class. In addition, many of their math skills were so poor, they couldn’t pass the state required test to get through high school.

“A key thing I noticed was that mindset and confidence was a staggering barrier for girls of color,” she said.

Determined to help her young students, Toussaint began to formulate her non-profit idea. Research informed Toussaint that dance had proven results of increasing self-esteem and confidence. Toussaint had been dancing since the age of five. As a child she studied various forms from ballet to jazz to hip hop. She led MIT’s Mocha Moves Dance Team in college, a group of 30 dancers who performed a mix of hip hop and lyrical dances on campus. She had also been a part of various dance groups in the New York area, one of which had almost made it through an “America’s Best Dance Group” audition. So Toussaint decided to combine her two loves and help inspire young minority women with STEM From Dance.

Although Toussaint works full-time as the Teach for America Director for Training & Reporting on Teach For America’s Growth, Development, and Partnerships Team, she spends about 30 hours a week on STEM From Dance, thanks to a flexible work schedule.

She began to turn her thoughts into action and formulated STEM from Dance in January 2012. The program was incorporated by November. During that incorporation process, she and founding board member and MIT colleague Nia Beckley kicked off funding for the program with a 45-day online campaign starting in July. At its end she exceeded her goal of $4,000 by eight percent.

With funding for her dream, Toussaint conducted her pilot program in the 2012 fall semester of her former Teach for America post, World Academy for Total Community Health (WATCH) in Brooklyn.

“I had a rapport with the principal,” she said. “I knew she would be open and enthusiastic about the idea. There was a mentorship program for boys but not for girls at the school and the girls said they wanted to dance.”

Toussaint led all portions of the pilot. She created an application for SFD and informed interested students that the program would be a mix of science and math learning as well as dance. Soon, eight ninth grade girls became the inaugural members of SFD. Toussaint worked directly with the girl’s science and math teachers to determine what the girls were studying and where they needed assistance. Once a week after school, she worked with the ninth graders on their homework and finished their session with dance practice.

“The most inspiring moments have been seeing the girls get genuinely excited about solving math problems and push past the awkwardness of being first-time dancers to discover new, constructive ways to move their bodies,” she said.

“We believe that it is not just teaching STEM through the arts, but teaching STEM and the arts together that is the catalyst for progress, and that what comes from this combination is more than either of them standing alone,” Toussaint said.

“SFD targets the whole person by utilizing the expressive and introspective nature of dance to strengthen students’ self-efficacy, develop character-strengthening traits, and positively expand their perception of themselves and the world around them. The confidence they gain will transform them into students who are more likely to take risks in the classroom, persist through confusion, and explore their intellectual curiosity – which we believe are the characteristics of a student who excels in STEM.”

Toussaint’s hard work with the program earned her Teach for America’s Social Innovation award, which provided her with $10,000 of feed funding as well as publicity and consulting services. In addition, her program was chosen by the Brooklyn Arts Council as a fiscal sponsoree.

Next school year, Toussaint will launch another pilot program with 30 students in a different New York City school. She is working with Teach for America to find the right school partner match and hopes to stay in Brooklyn. While SFD currently consists of Toussaint and two board members, she is expanding the program in the fall to include two academic coaches tutoring in math and science, one dance instructor and one site director.

She hopes her model of blending fun extracurricular activities and STEM interest can be expanding to include other interests aside from dance to attract even more students to STEM careers.

“I believe this is the work I’m meant to do, that God has created me to do,” Toussaint said. “This is my way of helping girls get from being unprepared to having really promising future, and that is what drives me to do this.”

A 2012 video from the program’s Indiegogo page.


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