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Vonda Dahl has made it her goal to help struggling students.

Dahl, the media literacy coordinator for Mandan Public Schools, sees firsthand how students experiencing stress at home can be adversely impacted at school. A doctoral student at the University of North Dakota, Dahl said she has researched how stress affects learning; her dissertation is focused on children in poverty.

"Every classroom has a certain number of students that are experiencing some sort of chronic stress," said Dahl, who is also the literacy coach at Mary Stark Elementary School in Mandan.

To help stressed-out kids improve their learning skills, Dahl proposed an idea: Let them play. She researched different ways to help students struggling at home and found physical activity, playing chess, music and performing and visual arts, are some of the activities that can help.

She helped create an "enrichment" day at Mary Stark, where, every Friday, the entire student body takes part in a particular activity. Earlier this school year, they learned how to play chess. After that, a visual arts teacher visited with students, and then they played board games together.

Now, Mary Stark has teamed up with Dakota Stage Ltd. for a six-week program that will allow the students to become the writers, directors and performers in their own shows.

Dahl said research shows prolonged stress "physically changes the landscape of the brain," and students who are chronically stressed can have problems learning.

"But the good news is, the brain can change," she said, of her research on ways to remedy changes in a child's brain.

Joshua Johnson, the executive director of Dakota Stage, isn't exactly sure that performing arts can reduce stress, but said there are some benefits he's observed through the Shade Tree Players program.

This summer will be the 49th season of the Shade Tree Players program, which is offered to children ages 7-18. The goal of the program is to educate youth and get them to perform for their friends and family. Over the course of three months, they put on six shows.

"I don't know necessarily about (performing arts) relieving stress, but I have observed a certain relief with kids," Johnson said. "For the majority of kids (in the Shade Tree program), once they get into what they're doing, everything else seems to cease to exist for that amount of time, and it's an opportunity for kids to really live in the moment."

Johnson said he jumped at the opportunity to partner with Mary Stark Elementary School when Dahl approached him in the fall. Volunteers with Dakota Stage have donated their time to teach the students at the school.

The curriculum at Mary Stark is a condensed version of the Shade Tree program. Johnson said because there wasn't any funding, they decided to let the kids write their own shows.

"Really, they're building the whole show from the ground up. They're going to be writing, producing and performing the shows," he said. Next month, there will be a parent performance at Mandan High School.

Johnson said Shade Tree used to offer year-round seminars, but stopped several years ago. After Mary Stark, he said they'll explore possibly expanding to other schools.

"I did kind of have that in the back of my mind as we embarked on this (with Mary Stark), that it might be kind of interesting to see if this is something we could offer outside of our summer season in coordination with the schools here," Johnson said.

Dahl said she and school officials are looking to see how the theater program and other activities affect students academically, through bumps in classroom grades and district assessments. She said she also hopes to see changes within the students, as well.

"It feels like play, that's the important thing," she said.

Dahl said they'll assess the effectiveness of the activities at the end of the school year; she hopes to continue them next year.

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Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com.

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