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Jordan Valley School performs The Little Mermaid

Published May 16, 2013 12:00 pm

Showtime • Special-needs students use adaptive technologies, focus on their strengths.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Jordan Valley School had a lot of fun under the sea.

Well, not literally in water, but in late April the school put on a production of "The Little Mermaid" with colorful costumes, dancing and singing.

"It's one of the most unique things I've ever seen," said Caitlin Barney, Jordan Valley School's music therapist.

The school in Canyons District serves students with severe disabilities. This year's spring production marks the fourth year of what's becoming a favorite program for the students, teachers and parents.

Before directing a schoolwide production, Jordan Valley used to have each classroom do its own little skit every spring, but the school decided to expand on the program.

"We started doing it based on the fact that we can accomplish a lot of the students' goals in a fun way," Barney said. "It's a giant collaborative effort of several therapies: music, speech and language pathology, occupational and physical."

Beyond the theatrical elements, students worked on skills like just being able to say their lines or stay onstage for a duration of time. Nonverbal and wheelchair-bound students also participated with the help from aides.

Technology played a role in the production as well. To assist nonverbal students, aides held iPads with pre-recorded lines and guided students to push the button to play the recordings when it was their turn.

"I have had a few teachers and parents come up to me and say, 'I never thought my child would be in a play or a musical,'" Barney said.

Teachers and staff members worked on the set, and Draper Theater and Olympus Junior High allowed the school to borrow costumes. Along with challenging the students to meet certain goals, the play also helped students to improve their strengths.

"One class is more verbal, we might have them sing, and one class that loves to dance, they have a choreographed number," Barney said. "It was so much fun with all the creativity that goes into it."

Student Connor Stevenson, who has been at Jordan Valley for 10 years, played King Trident in the production.

"I was in the ship, and I was steering the steering wheel," Stevenson said. "The invaders [eels] pushed the boat."

Among his favorite things about the play were the trident he held, and the mermaid tail and crown he wore. Stevenson liked the play so much that he asked if his stuffed cat could be Ursula the octopus. A teacher sewed tentacles onto his stuffed animal, and he now proudly carries around the cat/octopus.

"It was a really tangible way for him to connect to it," said Nevah Stevenson, Connor's mom. "The second he heard what the play was going to be this year, he started talking about it, and from that day forward he was excited about it."

Stevenson said something as simple as a play gives Jordan Valley students a "dose of normal" and a confidence booster.

"Connor had a little stage fright, and finally he got the courage," she said. "Being onstage is a great way for them to learn."

Student Russell Hone responded with a resounding "Yep!" when asked if he had fun doing the play. His mom, Vicki Hone, said she's impressed with the students taking up the challenge to be onstage.

"Most of them are in wheelchairs, and some of them have vacant expressions, but there's a little girl in Russell's class," Hone said. "She just got on the stage, and she just enjoyed herself 100 percent, as did Russell."

This classmate of her son has gone from nonverbal to being able to make some sounds, Hone said. In addition to the school plays, her son has participated in a community production of "The King and I."

"It helps some of them come out of their shells a little bit," she said. "It helps give them good self-esteem."

It's not necessary to be on cue with these performances.

"What I like about these plays is that it never goes the way that you plan, but it makes it more fun," Barney said. "The spontaneous things that happen during the show is what makes Jordan Valley [plays] unique and fun."

Some of those spontaneous things may mean that someone who said lines steadfastly during rehearsals might not be able to conquer stage fright at show time, but it could be the opposite of that.

"We had one student who was supposed to come up to the front and play his recorder, and then go to the back of the stage," Barney said. "He was so excited to perform that once we got an audience out there, he wouldn't leave the stage, and he was dancing."

Before working on the play, the school arranged an assembly to introduce the story. Barney said the students were smiling, clapping, playing the instruments and giving hugs.

The school picks from Disney movies because that's what students tend to be familiar with, but Barney said not to underestimate how much the students can comprehend.

"They understand the flow and when they're supposed to come on," she said.

A true testament to the success of the production isn't how many lines were said correctly or who shone as actors.

"The parents will come up to me and tell me how much their kids are enjoying it and benefiting from it," Barney said. "One of our students said this is making all of his dreams come true."

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At a glance

Jordan Valley is a special-needs school in Canyons District.

This spring the school put on a performance of "The Little Mermaid," which marks the fourth year that the school has been doing plays and musicals.

The nonverbal students delivered their lines with the help of hand-held devices that played recordings of their characters' voices at the touch of a button.