A story behind the data

​​​​Broadway Center, TPS partnership aids special needs students

Wilson High School parent Megan Overton felt apprehensive when she learned her daughter could participate in a drama and social skills afterschool program led by the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts.

Daughter Aidan had never participated in an afterschool club, due to her strong autism diagnosis. Questions raced through Overton’s mind about how Aidan would handle herself and how other students would respond. 

Student Aidan Overton uses empathy and negotiation skills she learned in an
afterschool program at Wilson High School to help her overcome ​
​autism challenges and work at the Pony Up Rescue Farm in Olalla, Wash.
​ “From a parent’s perspective, having her involved alone in an activity with typical kids is scary,” Overton said. “But it’s been so nice to expand her expectations of what she’s able to do. She loves it.”

In 2010, the Board of Directors of Tacoma Public Schools established Partnerships as one of its four strategic plan goal areas. District leaders recognize that educating Tacoma’s youth requires engagement from parents, community and staff. Partnerships like the Broadway Center’s LENS (Learning Empathy, Negotiation Sense of Self) Project​ at Wilson help the school district meet the needs of all students. 

That’s especially important with special education students, who are less likely to enroll in college or earn employment after graduation. In Washington, a recent survey of special needs graduates by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction found that 24 percent of respondents enrolled in college one year after high school and 28 percent were employed. 

Tacoma Public Schools wants every child to pursue their dreams after high school. The Broadway Center’s LENS Project is one of more than 40 formal partnerships with community organizations that provide extra support services to students. 

For Aidan, participation in the LENS Project for the past two years proved highly beneficial. It helps her work at the Pony Up Rescue Farm in Olalla, Wash., and she’s made progress communicating with teachers and students. 

Learning empathy & negotiation through art 
During a LENS Project meeting, students gather in a Wilson classroom to act, dance and draw, while learning key life skills like empathy and negotiation.

LENS activities include creating “frames of reference” where students draw pictures, patterns and symbols representing how they view the world on a frame. After creating their frames, students share and reflect. 

During “emotion mirrors” students act out an emotion for their partner to guess and emulate. The group discusses what they can learn from observing how other people show emotions. 

Originally started by the Tacoma-based Broadway Center for the Performing Arts as a program to serve students at risk for violent behavior, the program grew to involve any students.

“It’s a safe place for any student looking to connect and try something new,” said Marsha Walner, education coordinator at the Broadway Center and LENS teacher at Wilson. “We do a lot of team-building exercises to build a strong ensemble – a strong cast – that will work together.” 

Putting skills to work 
Aidan has shown immense growth since participating in the LENS Project. Her Wilson special education teacher praises her increased confidence in advocating for herself and talking to others. And she takes her skills to the real world with her volunteer job at Pony Up Rescue Farm in Olalla. 

Aidan, her mom and brother volunteer twice weekly at the farm, which nurtures abused and neglected horses back to health. Aidan and her mom consider the work a job. Stalls must be cleaned and horses, pigs and chickens fed. 

​Aidan uses skills learned in LENS to show more empathy toward the animals
​she works with at Pony Up Rescue Farm.
​ Aidan has always loved animals (and wants to be an animal cop, as seen on a TV show on Animal Planet, working to fight animal cruelty). But at first she didn’t want to spend too long with the animals. Sometimes taking directions was hard because she thought instructions were criticism and it hurt her feelings.
Through the reflection sessions of LENS, and long car rides back from the farm where she could talk about her feelings, Aidan grew to better recognize the animals’ needs and why the farm owners might ask her to do a task differently. 

In her LENS journal, Aidan recently drew a picture of herself working at the farm. She talked to her teacher about how she uses empathy to find out what the animals need and negotiation to work with others at the farm. 

“I acted out a few faces for her and Aidan told me what emotion I might be if I were the animal,” Walner said. “We talked about recognizing if they looked hungry or uncomfortable, because they can’t tell her.”

“Her ability to read and connect to the animals is pretty incredible,” Walner said. “Aidan is verbal, but not very detailed due to autism, so being able to get this information from her was really valuable and so amazing that she was able to articulate it.” 

LENS currently operates at Truman and Jason Lee middle schools and Wilson and Stadium​ high schools. Locations vary by school year.