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Compassionate Service Through Collaboration: USJ and the Bushnell Performing Arts Center

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For the University of Saint Joseph (USJ), its core values remain at the forefront of everything it does. Compassionate service – one of the seven values – is practiced in both programs and courses, as evidenced by the most recent capstone course for students in the undergraduate Special Education program.

Led by Jennifer Kowitt, Ph.D., assistant professor of Special Education, the spring course centered on a growing relationship with the Bushnell Performing Arts Center in Hartford, Conn. The partnership, which was founded by Kowitt’s colleague Lauren Tucker, Ed.D., assistant professor of Education, provided a unique learning opportunity for the four seniors in the 499 course.

“We ended up designing the course around what the Bushnell’s goals were and how we could be useful to the Bushnell, but also what my students’ interests were. I’m very grateful to my students because they were open to the idea that what the final project would look like might not be clear from the very beginning,” said Kowitt.

Ultimately, the course focused on the Bushnell’s growing sensory friendly performances, which are designed with the needs of children with autism in mind. Taking into account that some children may struggle with loud noises, bright lights, and sitting for an extended period of time, these performances are tailored to the audience’s needs. As a result, the house lights remain on and audience members can move around during the performance, talk and sing, or sit in a quiet area if there is too much noise.

“It serves a wide range of ages – from little kids to young adults – and this is really providing them with what they’re needing. They’re also offering specific workshops with this particular audience in mind. It’s a great resource for a diverse community,” Kowitt explained.

For the course, the Bushnell invited the USJ students to observe these performances so they could later create and distribute a follow up survey to the audience. With the results, the class was able to pinpoint strengths of the performances and areas for growth.

“The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, in its goal to increase programming and awareness of its sensory friendly programs, is thrilled to partner with the students and faculty of the University of Saint Joseph. It is extremely beneficial for the Bushnell to receive feedback from students who have had classroom experience working with people on the spectrum, and they have provided guidance and suggestions that we will use moving forward. In addition, collaborating with USJ has broadened our network of individuals and organizations that may be interested in our programming in the future. We look forward to continuing this unique partnership,” said Brenda Lopez, Director of School-Based Services and Talent Development at the Bushnell.

Kowitt looks forward to the continued partnership as well, recognizing the many ways it can enhance students’ learning experiences both in and out of the classroom.

“My students learned about how special education and education, more broadly, can take place outside of the classroom, and that it’s really important that we engage community partners in the work of educating students with disabilities,” said Kowitt. “Ultimately, students with disabilities grow into adults with disabilities, who we want to be a vibrant, participating part of any community. We have to teach students how to do that; we can’t just expect that will happen on its own. It shows students that there are places like the Bushnell that want you to be there; they want you to be part of the work that they’re doing. I hope that’s a big takeaway.”

What do Special Education students do? Learn more at here.