What a terrific opportunity for Tuolumne County students to be able to learn science, technology, engineering and math while painting, dancing or singing.
It’s a result of a $583,000 grant from the federal Student Support and Academic Enrichment competitive grant program. That title brims with the foreign language I like to call Educationese. Suffice it to say, the California Department of Education selected Tuolumne County and this program is having an immediate impact on students’ lives and education.
The value of the arts in education is well documented. Kids develop problem-solving skills. They learn to work together. The wide world is opened up for them in studying various cultures. Risk taking, creativity, challenges for every learning ability.
And here’s what all that adds up to: fewer kids getting in trouble, more kids attending school, higher graduation rates, better test scores.
I’ve seen it firsthand. When my daughter (now in her early 30s) was in fifth grade, I was the PTA president at her school. It was the 100th anniversary of the PTA and I wanted to do something special to commemorate the occasion. Something big at a PTA meeting.
I had heard of a woman who had moved into town from New York City, where she was an actress. An actual support-yourself-by-acting actress. She had been in “Cats” on Broadway.
So I called her and asked if she could work with some of our students for a small performance at the last PTA meeting of the school year.
We met, and we talked. And by the end of that meeting, she had agreed to help. But she had two demands: she wanted to work with the entire fifth grade and she wanted to write a play about PTA.
As I recall, there were more than 200 kids in that class. Some had quite a bit of performance experience — private lessons in dance, voice, acting — and others had never seen a play. I asked if she was sure. She said absolutely. So I got permission for her to work with each class several times a week.
Teachers were not happy. This took a class period away from teaching the essentials — and what they saw looming were standardized tests at the end of the year.
The principal, who was a singer, was undeterred. She reassuringly told them it would work out.
And then there was the material. A play about the PTA doesn’t sound all that thrilling until you remember the PTA was instrumental in pushing for kindergarten classes, child labor laws, healthy lunches, mandatory immunization, public health services and many other things, all set against 100 years of U.S. history.
She wrote essentially a full-blown musical. And kids who hated school suddenly loved coming. They learned to dance and set aside shyness in singing publicly and memorized lines that they spoke loudly and clearly.
We rented the high school auditorium, and it was packed.
I’ve never seen anything like it. One man, a World War II veteran, said he cried when students performed the raising of the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima. A woman said when the students belted out “I Sing the Body Electric” from “Fame” she got chills. And every one of those kids knew there was also a poem by the same name written by Walt Whitman about the connectedness of body and soul.
The teachers, even as they raved about the performance, remained a bit worried. They had given up a class period several times a week for six months. I remember hand-wringing and some amount of verbal abuse, but I suspect I’m adding some hyperbole.
I think you probably know where I’m headed with this.
That year, that fifth grade class scored the highest on standardized tests in the history of the school. We all became believers that year.
A theater teacher I know often says, she’s not teaching students to be performers. Her goal is not to see those kids on Broadway or Netflix (although one of her former students is a main character on “Orange is the New Black). She’s teaching life skills.
So let’s applaud the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office for getting this grant and making this happen for our kids.