For Danielle Ripka, dance is more than an art; it's a way to connect classmates.

It's a bridge linking the worlds of special-needs students, who use dance as an outlet of expression, and those who want to be their mentors and role models.

Her efforts began four years ago when she started volunteering at Dancing Dreams, a Queens-based nonprofit for children with physical challenges.

Ripka took what she learned there and brought it last year into Jammin' Jayhawks, a program started by her older twin siblings that allows Jericho 's physically and mentally disabled students to play sports each week under the guidance of volunteer classmates. The program's five-week dance portion attracted 30 volunteers and 15 special-needs students this spring.

"It's not about ability," said Ripka, 17. "It's about having fun without being judged."

Ripka also created her school's Corner to Corner Book Club, which invites students to review non-curriculum books on a district website; it has about 100 reviews now. And she directed this year's school fashion show, which raised more than $10,000 for Cohen Children's Medical Center.

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In addition, Ripka is the founder of Let's All Dance, a program that places bins at several local dance schools to collect gently used dance wear for underprivileged children.

"Danielle does not simply observe from afar," said her guidance counselor, Brian Deaner. "She is a leader who takes a hands-on approach in everything that she accomplishes."

HER PLANS: Ripka will attend Northwestern University in Illinois; her major is undecided.

AT COLLEGE I'M MOST LOOKING FORWARD TO:"The freedom of being on my own. And the added responsibility."

HIGH SCHOOL HIGH POINT: "Being elected co-president of Student Council. It's an honor because the whole student body votes, so it feels good to be picked by your peers."