Dancing Through Distance Learning
Jen Perrius’s new program The Academy helps fill the critical need for childcare and education services while students are not in the classroom.
Story and photos by Lindsay Hogeboom
“[We], like every other family, were kind of in limbo and scared [about] what we were going to do with our kids,” says Jason Dearinger, parent of a Fauquier County student who, like so many others, will be taking on distance learning for the first time as the 2020-2021 school year begins. Jennifer Perrius, Warrenton resident and owner and director of Progressions Dance Studio, took notice of the families in town facing this challenge of balancing school, work and a myriad of other responsibilities and felt compelled to help fill the critical need for childcare and education services. “After knowing Jenn and her family and her employees for the past two years, we had total faith and trust within her that she would take care of our kid,” says Dearinger.
In a normal year, Perrius’s dance studio runs afternoon programming five to six days a week during the nine months that correlate with the school year. In 2017, Perrius created a nonprofit arm of her business – The Emily Jane Performing Arts Program – in hopes of providing scholarships for under-resourced families to enroll their children into an arts program. Even prior to the nonprofit, Perrius herself had covered the tuition for a number of students to allow them to participate.
Now, to help offset some stresses caused by effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Perrius is running an additional Monday through Friday daytime program – The Academy – that, along with dance lessons, also provides a constructive learning environment through access to tutors, STEM activities, art lessons, fitness classes, and more. To ensure safety, class sizes are kept small, all instructors and students have their temperature checked upon entering the building each morning, and all are required to wear a mask except when spaced six or more feet apart for physical activities. And, Perrius will continue to offer tuition assistance to some families that may not be able to afford full-time childcare so they have a safe and nurturing place for their kids to play and learn while undertaking distance learning.
Perrius says that through her personal experience as a dancer and foster parent, she is acutely aware of the fact that many times, when finances are tight, arts are the first to be cut. “But arts, especially for a kid that may be struggling at home, are a really great outlet that is [often] not afforded to them,” she asserts. According to the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network, studies show that Perrius is right about the benefits of arts education; it’s associated with increased socioemotional skills, as well as lower dropout rates and better academic outcomes – especially for at-risk students. These encouraging indicators represent what Perrius hopes to provide for the kids enrolled in The Academy. She says, “Even if [my students] are never going to be professional dancers, the discipline that is learned in being a part of these programs – and the camaraderie – you can apply that to anything that you want to do.”
When it comes to the education portion of the program, Perrius predicts from her own experience with homeschooling that many of the kids may find distance learning to be very engaging, especially coupled with the tutoring services and activities that will be available through The Academy. “I know families are scared about the idea of their kids being virtually schooled,” she says, “but…they will develop such a curiosity for learning that [parents] will see the shift. And I’m excited for the kids to have that.”
In addition to the physical and mental benefits The Academy will provide for children, another advantage Perrius anticipates is the sense of normalcy and routine it will offer for the families. “If [the kids] are going to [The Academy] and getting their physical activity in, then they’ll have normal family time and normal dinnertime and normal bedtime instead of running, running, running,” she says. “I think something that the families will recognize is that it actually makes their lives calmer and benefits the whole family. I’m hoping that’s the culture that is developed.” And, Perrius hopes the tuition assistance program will be a gamechanger for those families in which parents are still required to work and would otherwise have limited or no other care options for their children. “Some of the kids that we have in the program, their parents were feeling really hopeless,” she says. “So I feel really good knowing that, maybe it’s just five kids, but it’s five families that are no longer freaking out; that no longer have to quit their job or figure out how they’re going to feed their family or pay their rent or mortgage.”
For anyone who meets Perrius, it’s abundantly clear that she is passionate about the well-being of the families and children of her community and is committed to putting that passion to practice through all aspects of her work; especially by growing and strengthening the Emily Jane Performing Arts Program. “If we have places for kids to be and give parents a break so they can work…and lessen their stress,” she says, “and their kids are being fed, both physically and mentally, then we can try and offset the potential of a lot of lost kids. That’s my real goal for the nonprofit.”