Ooh la learning: Pacific Beach dance academy steps into alternatives to online education

Dance academy Ooh La La is offering instruction programs for young students as an alternative to online learning at home.
Dance academy Ooh La La, which has studios in La Jolla and Pacific Beach, is offering instruction programs for young students as an alternative to online learning at home.

Local dance school Ooh La La Dance Academy is offering parents of preschool and elementary school children a unique alternative to the online learning at home widely planned for public and private schools in the coming academic year.

Ooh La La is offering a bilingual program for younger children and a performing arts plan for elementary students, aiming to provide credentialed teachers to guide small groups of students through their lessons and alleviate the stress on parents while schools remain closed for in-person instruction because of the coronavirus.

Schools will have to detail their plans for testing students and staff for the coronavirus and triggers for returning to distance learning.

The bilingual program for preschoolers through first-graders — under the supervision of Time4learning, an accredited homeschool company — offers credentialed teachers instructing in either French or Spanish for three hours a day, followed by three hours of performing arts time.

The performing arts program, intended for students in kindergarten through fifth grade who are enrolled and participating in a school’s online learning program, also will run for six hours a day.

It will provide a credentialed teacher to monitor, assist and tutor children for three hours in their school-provided learning programs, with an additional three hours for performing arts classes according to students’ interests in ballet, jazz, contemporary, acrobatics or other styles.

Susie Grafte, who owns Ooh La La’s studios in La Jolla and Pacific Beach, said she was motivated to create the programs after her “tremendous ordeal” to help her 6-year-old son finish kindergarten at La Jolla Elementary School through the distance learning provided when school campuses closed due to the pandemic in March.

Grafte said she was under a lot of pressure to keep her son learning and herself working to “keep my dance studios afloat.”

The isolation also was trying, she said. “For my son’s sanity, it was difficult for him not to have any type of socialization with anybody.”

“I’m scrambling. I can’t put my son through what he went through the last four or five months,” Grafte said.

She said her struggle is a common one: “Parents are all scrambling right now, wanting to make sure their children get the proper education.”

Some parents are turning to tutors and “pandemic pods” — small groups of children whose parents agree will be educated together by the same instructor — for options to school online programs.

Educational services such as McElroy Tutoring, Tutor Doctor San Diego and Day Prep adapt to increased inquiries, including interest in “learning pods.”

To help herself and other parents, Grafte’s homeschool programs at Ooh La La are a version of the pandemic pod, which supporters say allows for adherence to guidelines for social distancing while providing more-direct instruction and less screen time than schools’ online learning plans allow.

“I wanted to make sure the younger age group was my first target,” Grafte said. “I feel like this age group should not be on Zoom. It’s very important to have normalcy, and I’m not an advocate of busywork. I truly believe in the normal, traditional experience of schooling.”

The academic hours of the bilingual program will be in the morning and include instruction in math, reading, writing, social studies and science in French or Spanish, with “extremely low use of screen time, if any,” Grafte wrote in Facebook and Nextdoor posts promoting the program.

The program’s afternoon hours are reserved for any of the classes Grafte has offered at Ooh La La for 13 years: a variety of dance classes, as well as arts and crafts. Parents can opt for a full day for their children or enroll in either the academic or performing arts portion.

Providing a bilingual component to the program is very important to Grafte, who speaks four languages and whose husband is French (Grafte obtained French citizenship after marriage). Grafte’s son, who will participate in the program as a first-grader, attended three years of preschool at the San Diego French American School.

Being multilingual is “really is great for your brain, for being a world citizen,” Grafte said. “It opens so many doors. It’s the most wonderful gift you can give a child. Just having a second language can change your life.”

Grafte said the performing arts program will run until school classrooms reopen.

Both the bilingual program for younger students and the performing arts program will be capped at 10 students per room among Ooh La La’s three La Jolla rooms and one in Pacific Beach to allow for strict adherence to pandemic-related safety protocols and to “keep education and learning at the highest quality,” Grafte said.

Susanne Yao said she hopes to enroll her 6-year-old daughter Lola in the bilingual program. Lola, a dance student at Grafte’s Pacific Beach studio, is set to enter first grade at Barnard Mandarin Magnet Elementary School in Pacific Beach. Yao is concerned that Barnard can’t currently provide a “match for my vision of education for my kid.”

Barnard is part of the San Diego Unified School District, which announced last month that it would start the school year Aug. 31 with distance learning. SDUSD plans a six-hour school day for students including up to three hours of live online instruction, at least two hours of independent work and at least one hour of working in small groups or going to virtual office hours.

Yao, a high school speech and language pathologist, said the “real-life interaction and the consistency” offered by Grafte’s program are “huge.”

“I love the teachers at OLL; I have a lot of confidence in [Grafte’s] ability to put together a program that will be impactful,” Yao said.

Ooh La La's dance classes take place outdoors to allow for social distancing. Masks were taken off for the photo.

Ooh La La also is following other Centers for Disease Control and Prevention safety measures and public health directives as a designated child care and day camp facility, which are allowed to remain open under certain regulations. The academy also is conducting its dance classes outdoors on two dance floors built recently to “make dancing safer for our students,” Grafte said.

Grafte said she hopes the new programs offer parents an innovative alternative to renting space for daily tutoring or gathering at someone’s house for a pandemic pod.

“We have all the infrastructure and 13 years of child care and instructional experience,” Grafte said. “I want to be able to utilize my space.”

The bilingual program will cost $800 monthly for half time (either academic or performing arts) and $1,600 monthly for full time. The performing arts program will run $1,500 per month.

Grafte said she has about five interested families so far and is “pretty confident that the bilingual homeschool program will run in La Jolla.”

“I love finding solutions,” Grafte said. “We’re a small business, we find things, we build solutions. We love our community; we want to make sure we’re still standing. The dream has to continue.”

For more information, call Ooh La La Dance Academy at (858) 456-4500 or visit ◆