This photo of CircEsteem at Willard School and photo on page 1 by Maribeth Joy.

On Jan. 12, the circus came to Willard Elementary School, 2700 Hurd Ave., in the form of CircEsteem, a Chicago-based, non-profit youth circus. The group is dedicated to building kids’ self-esteem and “uniting kids from diverse backgrounds and helping them make a connection with each other and with school,” said CircEsteem project manager Maribeth Joy.

CircEsteem, with the help of a grant from the Illinois Arts Council and the support of the Willard PTA, began a six-week residency on Jan. 12 with an all-school assembly. “We started with a performance of skills that these kids were going to look at and say, ‘There’s no way I can do that,’” said Ms. Joy, “but over the next six weeks they were going to learn and to find out that they could. It’s amazing to see growth like that.”

Over the course of the six-week program, a troupe of performers from CircEsteem came to the school every Tuesday and Thursday and met with Willard School students. All the school’s students met with the troupe for at least an hour, but Willard’s second- and fourth-grade classes, whom Ms. Joy referred to as “the core group” of students, were engaged in a particularly intensive program. These students received training in “walking the tight wire, spinning plates and walking on stilts,” said Ms. Joy. They would perform for their friends and families at the end of the residency’s six weeks.

The performance was held on Feb. 21. Evanstonians gathered to see Willard’s second- and fourth-grade classes perform, using the skills they learned during the CircEsteem program.

“The turnout was fantastic,” Ms. Joy said. “There were 150 chairs out, and those were all filled. It was standing room only, and even that was pretty filled out. There were 200 people there, at least.” The performance was also a workshop, giving the kids a chance to teach their friends and families a little of what they had accomplished.

In addition to learning how to perform, building self-esteem and making a connection with one another, CircEsteem’s in-school residency also made connections with what the students were learning in school. “The art … and creative writing [classes] cooperated in helping us make posters and advertisements for the performance; the science classes began learning about gravity and inertia,” said Ms. Joy. “It was definitely an all-school connection being made with our program. I think it really helped students become more engaged in what they were learning in school and in what we were teaching them simultaneously.”

CircEsteem has plans to begin a two-week intensive in-school residency at a Chicago school. For those interested in CircEsteem, Ms. Joy says there are plenty of options to get involved, “We are always offering classes. We have adult classes and a ten-week summer camp that anyone can enroll in.” Those interested can visit CircEsteem’s website at, or call 312-731-4242.