Cirque du Soleil School in session at National Harbor
By Ovetta Wiggins,
Perched on cinder blocks and separated into four small compartments with desks and a computer, the trailers look like any that sit beside overcrowded public schools throughout the Washington region.
But in this case, the two trailers are the school. And outside on a small patch of black asphalt, where youngsters have drawn stars, faces and a heart using yellow, pink and green chalk, is the playground.
Located just off Interstate 95 near National Harbor in Prince George’s County is Cirque du Soleil School, a place where young performers in “Totem,” a Cirque du Soleil show, and children of parents who participate in the traveling circus have been getting their education for the past two weeks. This is how children learn on the road.
In David Godbout’s mini-classroom, where he teaches art, four 6-year-olds recently sat at their desks — made of red traveling cases with fold-out legs — cutting construction paper to make flowers.
Next door, Sophia D’Virgilio, 14, of Los Angeles received one-on-one instruction from Patricia Elliot during a science class involving discussion of solubilities and densities.
And in Marie-France Roy’s social studies class, with four students ages 8 to 12, instruction was conducted in French.
Nikita Moiseev, 17, who graduated from the school in July, said that, because of the small class sizes, he felt like he had received private tutoring.
Moiseev, who began performing with Cirque when he was 8 and whose parents are performers, said there were occasions when there were three different grade levels with him, but “it wasn’t as bad as it sounds.”
“I was given my work, and my teacher would focus on the younger students,” he said. “If I had questions, then she would help me.”
The nine students who currently attend the school have parents who are from the United States, Mongolia, Belarus, Italy and Spain. Three others — teenage performers from China — learn from a Mandarin-speaking translator who works with the show.
“They really live and grow in an environment that is very different,” said Francis Jalbert, a spokesman for Cirque du Soleil.
The school, which is a satellite campus of the International Circus School in Montreal and has been in operation since 1994, runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays from September to July. The nine students are learning a Quebec curriculum and are required to take standardized tests in subjects such as reading and math. The Chinese students are learning English and following their country’s curriculum.
Students will receive a Canadian high school diploma when they finish their courses. Jalbert said the diploma is recognized in the United States and other countries, allowing the graduating teenagers to attend college, if they choose to.
Instruction is “multilevel, multicultural,” Godbout said during an interview last week.
“Multi-everything,” added Elliot, who is beginning her 10th year teaching with Cirque School.
The school spends about two months in each location. The cast, crew and children will move to Atlanta early next month when ‘Totem’ begins a run there.
Elliot said moving doesn’t disrupt the learning process: It enhances it, she said. “We can adapt our lessons to the cities that we are in to enrich the students’ learning,” she said.
When the tour was in Amsterdam, Elliot had her English-language arts students study Anne Frank’s diary. The students visited the Anne Frank House, a museum that incorporates the former business of the Holocaust victim’s father and noted hiding places, she said.
“They remember more of what they learn because of that personal touch,” Godbout said.