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Photo Essay

Slideshow: Schools form a circus of trust

Exercises build students' communication skills, confidence and self-esteem
  • Students from Native American Youth and Family Services practice backbends.
  • A student at the Friendly House Community Center waits backstage in her makeup at a community showcase.
  • Students from Ockley Green Elementary School practice feather balancing.
  • A student performs at a community showcase.
  • Circus Project instructors and a student prepare for a balancing stunt.

For Portland Public School students in Oregon involved in The Circus Project, tumbling, acrobatics, juggling and conditioning activities help them learn to trust each other and themselves more.

“The students pay attention because of the intensity of the experiences and the perceived risk in circus,” says Jenn Cohen, The Circus Project’s founder and artistic director. “They are doing things they didn’t think their bodies could do.”

When they learn to say “no” to things that feel personally unsafe to them, they begin to communicate better, and confidence and self-esteem rise, Cohen says.

The Circus in the Schools program serves nearly 300 students in five low-income schools in the Portland district one or two days a week. And the project focuses on each school’s specific goals—such as reducing bullying or helping foster students deal with new family situations. Two Circus Project instructors bring mats, juggling equipment and other props to work on activities in gyms, theaters and even classrooms.

“Circus has a way of pulling together kids who would normally be adversaries in other areas,” says Cohen. “They need to trust and listen to feedback. They need to speak about their limits, body weights, where they are planning on going in the exercise. They need to hold another person’s weight and trust them with their own safety.”

The program launched at three schools in 2014 with funding from Portland’s Arts Education and the Access Income Tax initiative, a $35-per-person annual tax that voters approved two years earlier.

Circus in the Schools is part of a larger movement supported by Cirque du Soleil and Social Circus, a training program for at-risk groups supported through the American Circus Educators Association.

Social Circus consists of three eight-week sessions of specialized circus training for students at Title I schools. Instructors use circus exercises in part to teach students about discipline, fitness, communication and taking accountability.

The classes also can lead to mentorships and internships for low-income students interested in a circus career, Cohen says.