Joshua’s Stage Offers Fine Arts Options to Kids with Special Needs

Joshua’s Stage Offers Fine Arts Options to Kids with Special Needs

Joshua Levy has taken to the stage as a way to combine his passion for theater and educating children with special needs.

Levy ’s fi­rst experience with those with special needs was when he was in eighth grade, as a special needs class assistant teaching sixth graders one-on-one language arts lessons.

At the time he planned to pursue an acting career, but then he ended up in a similar role in high school, earning credit for helping to teach language arts to ­h graders with special needs. Around the same time, he also worked with a few kids with special needs at his family’s congregation, Temple Israel in Westport, Connecticut, and his mother suggested he consider becoming a special education teacher.

“It started to put this picture together of where my passion is,” Levy said.

He went on to work as an assistant teacher at a school for kids with signi­ficant cognitive and physical disabilities, then majored in elementary education/special education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before moving to Austin in 1998.

Levy worked in Austin Independent School District, where he taught elementary and high school students with various types of disabilities until in 2004, he began serving as assistant principal at Katherine Anne Porter Charter School in Wimberley.

After spending some time honing his administrative skills and earning a master’s degree in educational administration at Texas State University, Levy moved on to the business side of education at Pearson, an education management company where he worked for 10 years as a project manager, test development manager and program manager. He also earned an MBA at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Levy still had a passion for enriching the lives of kids, especially those with special needs, so when it seemed that his role would be eliminated during a reorganization at Pearson, he took advantage of the opportunity to consider what he really wanted to do. An idea he had talked about with his parents – to combine his love of theater with his passion for working with those with special needs -- came to mind, and he sat down to brainstorm and put together a business plan, putting his experience in teaching and educational administration together with his business expertise.

“I had a feeling that it’s what I’m supposed to be doing, what I want to be doing,” he said.

Fleshing out the plan and getting feedback from friends and family, Levy committed to what would become Joshua’s Stage, a non-profi­t performance center offering classes, primarily for children with special needs, in theater arts, dance, digital photography and ­filmmaking.

He started forming a board, which now includes John Traphagen, associate chair and professor of religious studies and professor in the Human Dimensions of Organizations program at the University of Texas at Austin; Pat Otto, who has 30 years of experience as a special education teacher and administrator; Alicia Garnes, who has a background in marketing; Michael Deitch, a lawyer and past president of the Jewish Community Association of Austin; Angela Nonaka, a faculty member in the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin; and Amanda Zhu, a graduate student in the Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas at Austin, who is serving as advisor to the board.

Joshua’s Stage ­first class, in theater arts, was held during a six-week summer session.

Levy explained that since kids in Joshua’s Stage classes may have a wide range of special needs – or not, in the case of a sibling or friend of a classmate with special needs, or just someone who enrolls because of interest in the program – the classes can be adjusted for anyone who enrolls.

Myrna Glikman was a volunteer who worked with the six children enrolled in the class in the social hall at Temple Beth Shalom.

“It was fabulous. They didn’t feel like they were outsiders looking in, they were insiders looking out,” said Glikman.

“It was an opportunity to see children who usually don’t get the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities in a completely accepting environment and encouraged to express themselves in their own comfort zone. They applauded each other’s accomplishments; the atmosphere was one of positive celebration at all times,” she added.

Joshua’s Stage’s second six-week session was held at the Capital School of Austin. Five children enrolled, which was not enough to offer two classes. So instead of eliminating the theater arts or photography class, the children worked on each subject for half of each 90-minute class.

“They get their self-esteem and con­fidence pumped up,” Levy said, adding that students also benefi­t from getting to know one another in a space where they can be themselves, share a ful­filling, positive experience, and feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Photography and theater arts classes were held during the third session, which took place in the fall, again at the Capital School. Joshua’s Stage has also offered a fi­lmmaking workshop for high school students, but the instructor was in a car accident so it is being rescheduled.

The next session will begin in January. In addition to theater and photography, instructors from Impulso Dance Academy will teach a dance class.

Levy has big plans for his organization’s future. He wants to offer after-school programs and camps, to work with other local schools and organizations, and to reach students from more age groups, from preschool to high school. Eventually, he would like Joshua’s Stage to have its own building.

Levy remembers fi­rst learning about tikkun olam in elementary Sunday school, and remembers wondering what he could do to help repair the world. But it did not occur to him that his passion for enriching the lives of children with special needs was his path for tikkun olam until recently.

“Especially working on Joshua's Stage, my sense of pursuing tikkun olam is a stronger feeling than it has ever been. When I watch a student in Joshua's Stage do something like take part in a brave, new theatre arts activity, or take photographs in a new way and get really excited about it, I know I am doing the right thing with Joshua's Stage; for that special moment of an hour and a half for that kid with special needs, that this is their time and place that no other place is providing this special moment for that child; this is that moment the world is becoming a better place. It's at that moment that I know by making Joshua's Stage that I am performing tikkun olam,” Levy said.

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