The Neighborhood Bridges program was founded in 1997 by Peter Brosius, Children’s Theatre Company’s artistic director, and Jack Zipes, internationally recognized fairytale scholar and Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. The program was originally sponsored by a generous grant from the Open Foundation in New York, and the syllabus was based on Zipes' book Creative Storytelling: Building Community, Changing Lives (1995). The initial purpose of Bridges was to set up a year-round program in which teaching artists would meet two separate classes in two different elementary schools in Minneapolis - Whittier and Lucey Laney - for two hours a week.
Over the course of the year, these two classes explored different genres of storytelling, writing, drawing, and improvisation and established contact with one another. In May, each class presented their own, original play at their school, then at their partner school, and finally at CTC. Reflecting the program's name, these three performances served to create bridges within the school, community, and theatre and between children, teachers, teaching artists, and relatives.
After a successful pilot year, Zipes led an intensive summer training that prepared actors and classroom teachers for the first year of Neighborhood Bridges. Our success in developing the talents and skills of over 100 students during the program's first two years enabled us to obtain more support from other foundations, allowing us to expand our program.
Eleven years later, Neighborhood Bridges has exciting programs in eight different inner city schools throughout the Twin Cities. More teaching artists have been trained in seminars taught by Zipes. The program now involves twenty classes and reaches 500 students. The Bridges program does not only collaborate with teachers and schools but also with organizations like the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) at the University of Minnesota. In 2005, Neighborhood Bridges was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a recipient of the Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination grant. This grant has allowed Bridges to disseminate its curriculum to national partners in ten states. During the grant process, evaluation and assessment tools of the Bridges program have been developed and analyzed by CAREI.
Throughout the year, the children form pen pal relationships with Bridges students at other schools. Each December, the classrooms perform a Peace Play at their own schools. In the early spring, the students meet their pen pals when all the Bridges classrooms attend a show at CTC. And, as the ultimate celebration of the year's work, they return in May to perform their own plays on CTC's United HealthGroup Stage at The Crossing Bridges Festival.
Over the years, Neighborhood Bridges has grown in both volume and content, but the truest measure of the program's success is still found in its classrooms and students. Children from diverse backgrounds, with varying degrees of academic development and English comprehension, grab notebooks and pencils and enthusiastically begin to write. Later, they share their stories with their peers and work collaboratively to create and perform original plays. Their voices are heard - in their own classrooms and beyond - and they really do become storytellers of their own lives.