Summer engagement ideas for teens

Esha Clearfield, M.A. and M.P.Aff., is the founder and president of Enriched Family in Austin. This local business provides parents with the information, tools, and systems they need to organize their families and thrive. Drawing on her expertise in research, project management, and family organization, Esha helps busy parents with a wide variety of practical, comprehensive family supports and solutions, particularly family resource research (including camps, enrichment activities, childcare and schools, college comparisons and help managing the college application process, and more!) as well as personal, family, and small business organization services (organizing spaces and developing organization systems). We invited Esha to deploy her considerable research skills to the topic of summer engagement opportunities for teens and share her best ideas here. Thanks, Esha!

In my work with families, I often hear how difficult it is for parents to ensure that their teenagers are engaged over the summer break. Many parents have pointed out that it is hard to find camps whose programming is tailored to this age group, and often teens think of camps as being for “little kids” and are therefore resistant to attending. In this brief article, I focus on several local summer teen engagement resources, including camps that offer Counselor-in-Training (CIT) programs, as well as suggestions for volunteer, internship, and job opportunities.

Photo by  Liam Macleod  on  Unsplash

Camp Counselor-in-Training (CIT) Programs

Many camps offer CIT programs—a great opportunity for teens to develop leadership skills and receive training as camp counselors. These programs are typically low-cost and fun, and they look great on a resume or college application. Here are a few Austin opportunities:

  • The Austin Nature & Science Center CIT program prepares teens (ages 15–17) to assist adult camp counselors in leading activities. There is a one-day training that equips CITs with the skills to become outstanding leaders by covering such topics as safety, child development, games, and songs. This popular program helps teenagers develop a sense of responsibility while increasing self-confidence. Participants can register for a maximum of 2 CIT camp sessions (each session is two weeks long: M–F, 8am–5pm). There are currently spots in the 6/24–7/5 & 8/5–8/16 sessions (the other June and July sessions are on a wait list). The cost of each two-week session is $198 for Austin residents. Register on the Austin Nature & Science Center website here.

  • The Austin Sunshine Camps CIT program is available to 15–18-year-olds who meet the qualifications (live in Travis, Williamson, Hays, Caldwell, or Bastrop county and qualify for the school free or reduced lunch program or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP] or are in foster care), demonstrate the ability to become a leader in their community, and are interested in becoming a camp counselor when they turn 18. There is no cost for the CIT program. Email programs@sunshinecamps.org for more information.

  • The Thinkery CIT program is available to teenagers (ages 13–18) who will work closely with Thinkery staff mentors to lead fun, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math)–based activities in Thinkery summer camps. Individual goals are set to ensure each participant develops new skills and gains valuable work experience that is transferable to future academic and career endeavors. If selected, applicants must commit to attending a series of training sessions. All selected applicants must agree to one week of the mandatory training dates and a minimum of 2 weeks of CIT camp support hours. Application is here. Deadline is May 1. There is a $10 program fee.


Photo by Rawpixel.com on  Pexels

Photo by Rawpixel.com on Pexels

Volunteer Opportunities

A number of Austin organizations that focus on connecting youth to local nonprofits are in need of volunteers. Included below are a couple of examples:

  • Generation SERVE, whose mission is to “engage children in volunteerism and empower them to make a difference in their communities,” offers a summer Youth Leadership Program for middle and high school students. Teens selected for the program are trained in group facilitation, communication, problem solving, nonprofits, and fundraising. Teens then put this learning into action by leading or co-leading Generation SERVE’s Family Volunteering Activities and designing service projects to benefit the community. The fee for this program is $170–$200. For additional information and to apply for the program, click here. The application deadline is April 12.

  • If your teen is interested in summer volunteering but cannot commit to the Youth Leadership Program, Generation SERVE also offers one-time volunteer opportunities for teens in 6th–12th grades in the form of Teen Service Days, during which teens volunteer alongside their peers without a parent or guardian. These events give teens experience with volunteer projects in support of many different nonprofit organizations and community needs. Details and registration information can be found here.

  • Austin Habitat for Humanity also offers a variety of Youth Volunteer Opportunities, including painting, landscaping, planting trees, construction, home repair, and more, all depending on the age of the teen. Click here for information.


Other Volunteer/Internship Opportunities

Summer is a great time for teens to participate in formal or informal internships matched to their interests. For example, if your teen is interested in art, they could look into volunteer or internship opportunities at local art galleries. If your teen is interested in medicine and health, many hospitals have junior volunteer programs or summer volunteer programs for teens, ages 15–18. In addition, the City of Austin has a variety of Youth Volunteer, Internship, and Employment Opportunities they could explore here.


Photo by  NeONBRAND  on  Unsplash

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Job/Entrepreneurship Opportunities

Why not encourage your teen to explore some entrepreneurship activities over the summer? They could build and brand their own babysitting, lawn mowing/lawn care, dog sitting/walking, or odd jobs business. Or perhaps they could find a part-time or full-time job, depending on their other summer responsibilities.

 
Happy summer!


Esha Clearfield

Enriched Family

The hidden third option: The use of tabletop gaming in social instruction

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Scott Allen, Psy.D., is Director of Psychological Services at College Living Experience (CLE) in Austin, which provides wrap-around supports for young adults with learning differences such as Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. His guest post explains the rationale behind using tabletop role-playing games to teach social skills in CLE Austin’s highly successful programs. An earlier version of this article appeared on the CLE website last year, and we are honored and excited to share it with Alt Ed Austin’s readers.


As a kid of the 80s, video games were a big part of my childhood. I was always interested in having the newest game system and trying out the hottest game. They were a refuge for me after a rough day at school, and a way for me to relieve the frustrations of everyday life. Anyone who has defeated a particularly difficult boss can attest to the senses of accomplishment and pride that accompany this amazing feat. At that point in my life, gaming was a relatively solitary activity that I used to help me cope with the stresses of each day.

There was another side of gaming that I knew about but did not explore in my youth. I had a small group of friends who would talk about playing D&D (Dungeons and Dragons). I thought I would somehow be considered uncool for playing D&D, so I dismissed offers to play the game. As a kid, I was a “closeted geek.” Boy, did I miss out!

Flash forward to my time at CLE. In our Austin center, I have placed great efforts on making our social programming interesting and fun for our students. My approach to teaching is mostly interest-based as I feel that students learn best when they are truly engaged and enjoying their activities. One of my colleagues introduced the idea of tabletop role-playing games (RPGs)—the broader category of games that include D&D and other games requiring participants to take on the roles of characters—as social-teaching tools. I overheard her leading some games in the lounge, witnessed the student engagement, and took note of what great social opportunities these games are.

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With my support, my colleague led several tabletop gaming groups. For anyone who hasn’t played, here’s a quick primer. Tabletop gaming has a few general facets:

  •  Players assume the roles of characters who are not themselves (though they may integrate aspects of themselves into their roles). Players stay “in character” during the game and interact with each other as their characters would.

  • Games are loosely structured, giving players quite a bit of leeway in making decisions in the game.

  • There is a Game Master, or GM (a Dungeon Master, or DM, in D&D), who leads the adventure. GMs can keep the game very structured, leading the group down a preset adventure, or can be very unstructured, with a more improv-based approach.

  • There is opportunity for adventuring parties to coordinate and discuss plans for the game. The best games have characters with varying skill sets, allowing the party to take advantage of each character’s strengths.

  • Despite all the planning the party may perform, there is still an element of chance in the game, usually in the form of a dice roll. When characters use their skills, they roll dice to determine success or failure (called a check in gaming terms).

  • There are usually elements of exploration, interaction with non-player characters (NPCs), and various forms of battle in tabletop RPGs.

In my experience as a social-skills instructor, it is hard to think of approaches that are more effective in teaching social interaction in a completely nonthreatening way. Our students love this approach, and we have seen evidence of the generalization of skills outside the gaming setting. Tabletop gaming is also a great way to work on executive functioning components, such as planning, prioritizing, flexibility, and emotional control. Below are a few of the many skill areas that can be addressed using tabletop gaming.

  • Perspective Taking: It’s hard to think of a time in the game when you do not have to take another person’s perspective, as you are acting out a character the entire time. Players also interact with NPCs, often requiring them to understand how to gear communication in order to reach an optimal outcome.

  • Flexibility: Anything can happen in tabletop games, and parties must adjust quickly to rapidly changing conditions in the game. One important concept in tabletop gaming is called the hidden third option. Often in the game (and in life), we encounter situations when we seemingly have a limited number of choices. In a tabletop game, you might run into a situation where you must fight or avoid a rat, for example. The hidden third option might be to use some cheese to lure the rat to distract a bigger enemy, allowing you to slip by.

  • Teamwork/Cooperation: The best tabletop adventures require a wide range of characters with different skill sets. When presented with a strength-based challenge, the team needs to have a fighter or a warrior in order to be most effective. However, a mental challenge might require a wizard or a cleric. In addition, parties might encounter puzzles or team-based challenges that require players to work as a group to solve them. When one player struggles, the team must step in to help that player, or the entire party might suffer a grim consequence, like a Beholder wiping the party off the face of the world.

  • Planning: Although much of the game is done on the fly, skilled parties often plan sequences of actions that depend on the success of prior actions. Sequencing and coordination of actions is very important in battle situations and puzzle solving during the game.

  • Communication: Non-player characters may respond differently to players’ characters, based not only on what they say but also on how they say it. For example, if a player demands an item in a rude way, the NPC might respond in kind, refusing to give the item, destroying it, or fighting the party. This allows players to have “real” opportunities to work on communication skills without having to deal with the consequences of an embarrassing interaction in real life.

My experiences playing these games at CLE led me to seek out others who enjoy tabletop games in my outside life. I have joined a group of tabletop gamers and have learned to embrace my inner geek in a way that I never had before.

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A couple of year ago, unfortunately, my colleague left CLE, and we were in need of new GMs. How did we handle that? First, I gave myself a crash course in how to run a tabletop gaming group. I have been able to run games with premade stories and alter the games based on the needs and goals of the participants. For example, one week I set up a situation where the party needed to utter the magic word help in order to move forward in the game. The reason I added this element to the story was that a student was struggling with asking for help in their everyday life. I am currently running a brand-new group with students playing as superheroes. This will be my first time generating and executing a completely original story.

Second, we have had CLE students volunteer to run tabletop gaming groups with staff assistance. We currently have a student who has made his own tabletop gaming system based on a popular video game. It has been great to see this student lead the game, ask the group for feedback, and integrate the feedback into the game.

Learning how to socialize can be seen as boring or useless for many of our students, but the social skills they learn at CLE are among the most critical in terms of job success and building lifelong relationships. It’s sometimes difficult to talk about areas of life that are challenging, and socialization is often challenging for our student population. The use of interest-based techniques, such as tabletop gaming, helps to take the “edge” off social training, making it fun for both participants and instructors.


Scott Allen

What I learned at the Education Reimagined Symposium 2019: #whyLCE

I was excited to learn recently that a new learner-centered school, Gantry Academy, is launching soon in Round Rock. Soon after, I had the serendipitous pleasure of meeting its founder and director, Jennifer Phillips, at the Education Reimagined Symposium in Washington, D.C. It was the best education conference I’ve ever attended, and I’m grateful that Jennifer offered to share her takeaways and insights from the symposium in this guest post. —Teri Sperry

The time is now. Kelly Young, president of Education Reimagined, at the organization’s symposium, January 17, 2019.

The time is now. Kelly Young, president of Education Reimagined, at the organization’s symposium, January 17, 2019.


While many parents feel that the standard modern education system doesn’t work for their child, we might not know that there is another way. We just have this nagging feeling that our children are not widgets to be produced by an educational factory. So, some of us are moving to private schools, where lower ratios and individual attention give us hope for a better outcome. But then we hop from school to school, looking for the right fit that we can’t articulate, only knowing that something about each offering is just not working for our child. What we are developing alone together is the concept that education should start with the learner, rather than the institution.

Education Reimagined hosted a one-day symposium in Washington, D.C., on January 17 focused on sharing the message of Learner-Centered Education (LCE). There were over 200 educators, philanthropists, vendors, and learners present; chances are you missed it, quite possibly just because you haven’t even heard the term LCE, and you aren’t alone.

A true learner-centered education is more than a majority consensus on a thematic unit topic. It allows each learner to strive for mastery at their own pace (competency-based), with personalized, relevant, and contextualized content that they themselves engage in designing (learner agency). It is rooted in meaningful relationships (socially embedded) and it does not stop in the classroom (open-walled).

As it turns out, I was sent to the symposium because the educational goals I have for my own children align directly with the purpose of Education Reimagined. This organization is fully committed to transforming all education into the learner-centered paradigm. I didn’t realize it before, but my family is just a small piece of a much larger movement. I knew intrinsically what I wanted education for my girls to look like. I could describe it to other parents as “learner-driven” or “passion-driven” or even a “hack school” model, and I could cite specific studies supporting this approach, but what I lacked was the common vocabulary and the knowledge of the sheer magnitude of the existing efforts pushing in the same direction.

After a full day of immersion with these passionate, dedicated innovators, I came away inspired and recommitted to building a better educational method for every single child! It may sound fantastical or like an unreachable goal, but here are my top takeaways from the symposium that make this dream possible. 

1. This is not a “fancy liberal fad.”

At the conference, I spoke with leaders from both private programs and public school districts, from northern states like Vermont and from heartland states like Missouri. I was not the only person from Texas there. The idea that each person is unique and learns best in their own unique way has so much research to back it up that LCE is not just trending; it’s only a matter of time before it is the new standard. How can anyone make that claim? It’s already happening in most other major industries, from personalized television programming from Netflix and Hulu, to personalized medications based on your DNA. Personalized education is not just preferable; it’s inevitable.

Jasmine McBride, a student who spoke at the symposium about her experiences in a learner-centered high school.

Jasmine McBride, a student who spoke at the symposium about her experiences in a learner-centered high school.

2. Kids are people NOW.

While this may sound like an obvious statement, how many times have you heard “Children are our future?” Implying that age limits the usefulness of a person is not only harmful but also wasteful. There are now high school students who are published authors, Emmy award winners, and mentees of Broadway superstars, all thanks to their experiences with LCE. Learner agency, the ability for a student to make decisions about their own education, seems to generate one particularly interesting outcome (among the many additional benefits): sense of self. Self-confidence. Self-esteem. Self-efficacy. I heard from the young learners I spoke with directly that even one year in an LCE program can have a major lifelong impact. The more this seed grows in learners now, the more exponentially it will take off as they take on leadership roles in the community.


3. This is the best-kept secret in your neighborhood.

Remember when I mentioned that we are each developing this feeling “alone together”? The latest study shows that up to 60 percent of the public feels that education should be aimed at preparing individual learners for personally fulfilling lives. And yet, those same people think that only 5 percent feel the same way! Start the conversation with those around you. Even if they don’t have the same vocabulary, it’s something we can discuss together rather than in isolated pockets.

What can I do for my child NOW?

First, read about Learner-Centered Education at Education Reimagined to learn more about the national conversation happening now. Familiarize yourself with the vocabulary so we can all be having the same conversation locally as well as nationally. Decide if a fully personal, engaging educational path is right for you or your child. 

Second, act locally! While some public schools near us have shifted to competency-based report cards and portfolio assessments, they are still required to teach to the standardized tests. Work with your PTA to encourage change within your school. Some private schools are run democratically. Take a proposal to your leadership circle to discuss the LCE concept in depth.

Third, drop in to one of the regular workshops hosted by Gantry Academy to help us develop the LCE method that best offers custom, individualized programs to each learner right here in Round Rock, Texas!

[For a more comprehensive review of the symposium’s specific events, read Suzanne Freeman, Ph.D.’s blog post here.]


Jennifer Phillips

In praise of (educational) selfishness

Ted Graf leads Headwaters School and, among other worthy pursuits, plays ping-pong.

Ted Graf leads Headwaters School and, among other worthy pursuits, plays ping-pong.

In his first guest contribution to the Alt Ed Austin blog, Ted Graf, Head of School at Headwaters School, provides an excellent list of questions to ask when looking for the right school for any individual learner. If you’ve ever spent time in a private consultation or group workshop with me, you’ve likely grappled with many of these same questions. You’re invited to discuss them with Ted and other Headwaters community members at their January 26 middle and high school open house.


For most schools and those of us who work in them, this time of year is both highly stimulating and thought-provoking. On the stimulating side, we’re doing a lot of thinking, imagining, and planning for next year—how can we deepen our programs and make them more meaningful for students? Are there ways we can strengthen our culture, especially in the context of so much disequilibrium in the larger society? On the thought-provoking side, we’re finding that children and families have more and more insightful questions about how our education (or anyone’s) is really meeting a child’s needs, and I view this as a hopeful development.

So, I find myself having conversations with students and families about the “best” environment for that learner. Though it may sound counterintuitive, I urge students, in partnership with their parents, to think as much about themselves (as learners) as they do about a school setting.

This scene from the Headwaters River Campus shows an example of a relatively informal learning environment that can be a better fit for many kids than more traditional classrooms.

This scene from the Headwaters River Campus shows an example of a relatively informal learning environment that can be a better fit for many kids than more traditional classrooms.

Below, you’ll find the questions I encourage students to ask themselves as they consider different schools; they can be adapted for younger learners and work nicely in dialogue with parents.

  • In your most rewarding year of school, what was that environment like? Describe its characteristics for yourself. Are those characteristics still true for you as a learner?

  • What kind of learning environment are you looking for now? Informal? Formal? Bustling and busy? Quieter and more reflective? Structured? Individualized? What do you want that environment to look and feel like?

  • What role do your health and sense of balance play in your decision-making about school?

  • What kinds of relationships do you want to have with your teachers? Do you want to be known and understood, or do you prefer some anonymity? How do you feel about calling your teachers by their first names?

  • What kinds of students do you want to be around? After all, you’ll share hours of discussions, projects, rehearsals, practices, games, and performances together. Who motivates you? Who stimulates you? Who lights you up?

  • What kinds of curriculum are you seeking? Answer-based? Question-based? Socratic and discussion-based? How much research? How many projects? How do you feel about exams and the like?

  • Particularly pertinent to grades 4 through 12, how willing are you to use your voice to shape the learning environment around you? [At its essence, this question is asking you (and your parents) about whether you see education as something happening WITH the student or FOR the student.]


Headwaters students deep in exploration at the Blanton Museum of Art last December. How active—and interactive, and proactive—should your learning be?

Headwaters students deep in exploration at the Blanton Museum of Art last December. How active—and interactive, and proactive—should your learning be?

To be clear (and based on my own experience as a teacher and school leader), I am biased toward making a meaningful and vigorous education WITH the student. If you have other questions you find useful at this moment in a child’s educational journey, please share them in the comments.


Ted Graf


Alt Ed “on the air”

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We often tell our kids that it’s important to try new and scary things, from calculus and Beowulf to roller skating and brussels sprouts. A few weeks ago, I tried something new and scary, and the result was a truly delightful experience that you can actually hear for yourself now. I was honored to be a guest on one of my favorite education-related podcasts, Ba Luvmour’s Meetings with Remarkable Educators.

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I already knew and respected Ba as a colleague, and he immediately put me at ease, as he does with every guest. His warm manner and deep engagement with all things related to alternative education are on full display in the interview. We talked about the development of Alt Ed Austin and about some of the big questions that parents and students face today—and ways to help answer them. I even had a chance to mention a book I’m working on called the Alt Ed Explainer. We also discussed ICARE, the exciting new alternative school accreditation project that my partners at Enlight Ignite and I have the honor of collaborating on with Ba and his work and life partner, Josette Luvmour, at Luvmour Consulting.

If you listen to the show, please drop me a line via email (teri@altedaustin.com) or Facebook (facebook.com/altedaustin) and let me know what you thought. You can find this episode and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you prefer to listen. Please also consider supporting! Meetings with Remarkable Educators with a small donation via Patreon.

Many thanks to Ba for the chance to talk about what I love with a new audience.

Puppetry with objects unlocks the imagination and opens the mind

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Guest contributor Caroline Reck is the founder and artistic director of the award-winning
Glass Half Full Theatre, which has created some of the most creative, educational, and emotionally moving theater productions I’ve experienced in Austin (or anywhere). I can’t wait to see their latest work, Cenicienta: A Bilingual Cinderella Story, and you’ll understand why whey you read Caroline’s inspiring post below.


A few weeks ago, my young daughter and I were lying on my bed, reading a story. I wanted her to nap. She wanted to talk to me about the patches in our ceiling plaster, where a leak in the roof had caused some discoloration and peeling sections. I always avoided looking at those patches, a reminder that despite having our roof repaired, I had yet to chip away the plaster and repaint the ceiling. But Clementine saw something else. Unaware of my angst about those patches, she told me, “Mama, I love your ceiling! It’s so beautiful. There’s a mama fish, and a baby fish, and that one’s a bear. They’re taking care of each other, in case the bear isn’t a friendly bear . . . oh, no, it’s OK . . . the bear is smiling. . . .”

I was reminded, once again, of how important imagination is in creating a sense of positivity, of possibility, of aspirational thought. I shouldn’t have to be reminded. I’m the founder and artistic director of Glass Half Full Theatre, an Austin company, where my job is dreaming up ways to help audiences look at life in imaginative and optimistic ways, through puppetry and other live theater forms.

But it is so easy to let the everyday drudgery pull you down, make you forget your natural imaginative urges, and I see it happening to kids at younger and younger ages. Many factors contribute to children using their imaginations less often: screen time supplying ready-made images and predictable stories, exhaustion from long hours at school and aftercare, overscheduling of overly structured activities. As an educator, artist, and mama, I’m always looking for ways to promote imagination in children’s lives, and I particularly like to do bilingual work, so it’s accessible to kids whether English or Spanish is the language they are most confident in.

I wrote a play that was originally produced in 2015 at ZACH Theatre, in collaboration with Teatro Vivo, and is currently touring to schools in the Greater Austin area. It’s called Cenicienta: A Bilingual Cinderella Story and features the character of Belinda, a young girl banished by her uncaring stepfamily to the basement. Undeterred, Belinda befriends the objects around her, inventing characters with her unbridled imagination.

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The show opens with Belinda giving voice(s) and movement to a two-headed desk lamp. Kids in the audience lean in. They’ve never seen this before. They are intrigued. They want to figure out what’s happening. Sometimes audiences of children will talk aloud at this point: “What’s she doing? How is she doing that?” but they quickly settle into a fascinated silence as the lamp characters (Gustavo and Ernesto) set up the backstory.

Belinda is stuck in the basement, preparing for a party that’s happening upstairs later on. She begins to recount the story of Cinderella, using a napkin with a napkin ring for Cinderella, an upside-down teapot for the Fairy Godmother, and a set of kitchen funnels for the stepfamily. She (and we) notice the parallels between the story of Cenicienta and Belinda’s own life, but it takes the duration of the show, and the unexpected opportunity to meet her hero, real-life poet Gary Soto, who’s upstairs at the party, for Belinda to gain the confidence to recognize her own self-worth in the world outside her imagination.

We’ve been touring this show to Austin-area campuses for the past year. I sit near the audience in the auditorium to run the sound cues, so I get to experience their youthful reaction to unbridled imagination being validated onstage. Their eyes get brighter. Their focus is intense, different from the glazed look children get when they are watching digital content. They are watching and listening, piecing together the story. Teachers and parents report to me that after the show, their kids start making up stories using brooms and straws and other objects they find around them. Kids who don’t speak Spanish experience the unique opportunity to follow along with the parts that are in Spanish, without being left out, because the action provides the links to understand what’s happening onstage. Tapping into their imaginations improves their ability to approach ideas with an open mind.


I still haven’t fixed the ceiling in my bedroom, but I also don’t avoid looking at it anymore. After all, my daughter finds it beautiful. She peers into the constellation of peeling drywall and sees a family of fish taking care of one another. I see the blooming artistry in her eyes, and I can’t remember why I disliked those patches in the first place.

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Cenicienta: A Bilingual Cinderella Story, by Caroline Reck and Rupert Reyes, is being presented at the Sin Fronteras Festival at UT Austin January 23–24, 2019, and is currently available to tour to schools in the greater Austin area. For information on the Sin Fronteras festival, visit here. For information on bringing Cenicienta to your school, please visit here.


Caroline Reck