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Under The Big Top

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Photos by Benjamin Tice Smith

"Max, did you have a snow cone for breakfast?" The sheepish grin to the sleepy-eyed 8-year-old's face. His plaid shirt and tousled hair bring visions of Tom Sawyer to mind. His tongue and mouth are bright blue. Snow cones for breakfast. Cotton candy for lunch. It's just another day at the One-Ring Schoolhouse. Max Schumann Binder and his classmates don't daydream about running off to join the circus--they live there. They even go to school there. It's a place where no one looks at you funny when you tell them your dad is a ringmaster. In fact, that's exactly what Max's father, Paul Binder, does for a living. A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Binder got his start in the performing arts in student productions at Dartmouth College and later went on to earn an mba at Columbia University. After a series of jobs in the television industry, he decided to make his way across Europe with pal Michael Christensen, juggling in the streets to pay their way. In 1977, the two launched the Big Apple Circus, modeling their traveling one-ring show after the European circuses that captured their imagination.

Over the years, the Big Apple Circus has grown to 185 employees--20 performers, 165 behind-the-scenes staffers, and 10 children who travel with the circus. At first, the staff relied on backstage tutors to help the children with their studies. But with time, Binder and Christensen decided the young performers and the employees' children who travel on the show's 20-week tour needed a more formal education.

So eight years ago, the circus opened its very own One-Ring Schoolhouse. The troupe appointed a board of directors, held fund-raisers, and eventually received approval to establish a formal independent school in New York state. In 1993, it sought to further professionalize the school by hiring the school's single full-time teacher through On Location Education, a New York-based company that supplies on-set instructors for young stage and screen performers.

Now, the students attend school five days a week, just like other children. Well, almost. They go to school on the weekends and get Monday and Tuesday off instead, when there are no performances.

Philip Anthony Giordano Jr., the Big Apple's general manager, says the traveling school even helps attract employees. "In what other business can you work that also educates your children?" he muses. "We have the ability to control the environment that our children learn in."

The Big Apple Circus is smaller and less grandiose than its three-ring counterparts. And while it may not fill the huge stadiums that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus does, the intimate, scaled-down version is just as spectacular. No one sits more than 50 feet from the ring, and clowns mingle with the audience throughout the show.

The One-Ring Schoolhouse has a similar feel. It is tiny, with just seven students ranging in age from 6 to 14 and one teacher. The actual school is a small apple-red trailer that travels 5,000 miles a year. Inside, the classroom has an informal atmosphere. Parents can stop by for impromptu visits or to have lunch with their children. Students can run home to their family's trailer if they forget a book.

A typical school day runs from 9:30 to 1 for the younger students and 11:30 to 4 for the older ones. Their teacher, Leslie Martino, sees that her students cover study the basics: from reading, writing, and math to science and history. Reminiscent of the one-room schoolhouse, the curriculum encourages independence and allows students to work at their own pace. Martino also works to incorporate the circus' theme into her lessons. This year's "Jazzmatazz" show features the music, costumes, and dances of the Jazz Age.

This fall, the school--and its accompanying circus--made its way to Reston, Va., outside Washington. But despite the school's new location, it's business as usual inside the One-Ring Schoolhouse.

Melanie Yoxall, 7, the daughter of the assistant house manager, works on a spelling list. "Able, lady, paper, flavor," she reads.

Ten-year-old Katherine Schumann Binder devises analogies to describe the parts of the cell. "A nucleus is like your brain because it controls growth and daily activities," she writes.

In a cage nearby are two mice, Cleo and Patra, the school pets. In a tale told many times, Katherine explains solemnly that their predecessors, Chip and Dale, died over the summer because of a miscommunication over who was supposed to take care of them. "They got kind of dehydrated," she admits.

Next to Katherine, 14-year-old Keely Sullivan, whose mother is the circus' bookkeeper, works on her algebra problems. Keely attends the One-Ring Schoolhouse part of the year and goes to a high school in Florida when she is living with her father. For Keely and a classmate who split their time between two schools, Martino tailors lessons around their other school's curriculum.

The rest of the students attend the One-Ring Schoolhouse for a 10-month academic year. The school closes down in January and February, when the circus camps out in Florence, S.C. During the off-season, students can either take a vacation or attend the local public schools.

"I think I learn more here because I get more attention," Katherine says. "When we're here, it's like we're home. I'm missing out on band class and gym class and things like that, but here I am learning acrobatics and horseback riding."

Two students, Max and his sister Katherine, are performing in the current tour; Katherine appears in her mother's equestrian routine and dances as a flapper girl in another act; Max performs tricks with his dog Scruffy. But whether or not they appear in the spotlight, every student gets a chance to learn circus skills, from juggling to gymnastics. And informally, the students are all picking up bits and pieces of the many languages spoken by circus employees: Spanish, French, Hungarian, Danish, Bulgarian, Russian, Italian, and Japanese.

As a traveling school, the One-Ring Schoolhouse can also offer a wide array of field-trip options. During their Reston stopover, for example, the class will visit the National Air and Space Museum in Washington as part of a class project on space exploration. And students can also take advantage of the chance to see the rest of the Smithsonian museums, the Capitol building, and other historic landmarks. In New York, where the circus spends the winter holidays, Broadway and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are favorite sightseeing stops.

Every week, Martino completes a written evaluation to assess each student's progress. She sends the detailed reports, which take several hours a day to complete, to On Location Education's New York offices, which in turn shares them with the students' parents.

Under the company's recommendation, students now take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills each year. Last year was the first time they took the exam, and their scores ranged across a wide spectrum, according to Trish Toback, a company spokeswoman: Some were way ahead of grade level, others were a little behind.

So far, the school is only chartered to offer instruction up to the 10th grade, but it hasn't had any students older than that yet. Toback expects the school will eventually be able to offer a full high school curricula.

Before coming to the One-Ring Schoolhouse, Martino spent two years in Teach for America, working at an elementary school in central Los Angeles. She also taught at a bilingual school in Mexico.

Last year, she moved to New York and got a job with On Location Education, which she had heard about from a friend in the entertainment industry. Before joining the circus, Martino tutored the 16-year-old pop singer Brandy and worked on the set of several television shows.

"This one challenges me a lot more," she says, "because I am responsible for creating the curriculum, as opposed to presenting what is already there in a creative way."

Still, she admits that circus life took some getting used to. There's no phone, no television, and no vcr in her trailer. But once she adapted to life under the big top, Martino says, only one significant drawback remained: the isolation. While Teach for America offered her resources and networks, she now feels a little disconnected from the broader education world.

"There's no one to bounce ideas off of," she laments. On the other hand, she enjoys her 30-second commute and being able to find more time for personal reading and reflection. "There is a lot less wasted time," she notes, "because I don't have to ride the subway to work or do my own cooking."

It's sometimes confusing when people at the Big Apple Circus use the word "here." They're usually not talking about Reston, or New York, or wherever else the circus might put down temporary roots. They're talking about the community of people and trailers that make up their traveling home. As acrobat and dancer James Clowney explains it: "Home is where the tent is."

Though the constant travel takes its toll, the close-knit nature of the community lends plenty of stability and support. "There's almost a utopian feeling on the lot," suggests Vanessa Thomas, the customer-relations manager. The towns around them may change, but the world within the Big Apple's fences is one free of crime and fear.

In many ways, it's like a small town. Assistant house manager Dianna Yoxall says knows she can count on her colleagues to keep an eye on her daughter. "I can ask, 'Has anyone seen Melanie?' and there are five people who can tell me where she has been for the past five minutes."

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