Fun with science. The magic of electricity. Math and rap. Who knew school could be so entertaining?
The folks at the State Theatre, it turns out, where they’re melding education with a live theater experience to give children exposure to the arts while also helping teachers weave it all into their curricula.
And they’re doing it for free.
The historic downtown Modesto theater is about to embark on a fifth season of its Youth Entertainment Program for elementary students from across the county.
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“The State is all about inclusion in all things,” said Sue Richardson, executive director at the nonprofit theater. “We didn’t want to exclude a single child from participating in these extraordinary educational experiences and realized that for some students and their families, even a dollar would be too much, so we sought grant funding and offered the presentations for free.”
The program, YEP for short, was the brainchild of Richardson and former State board presidents Randy Siefkin and Patty Halvorson, who sat down five years ago to cobble it together, she said.
This isn’t the business of education, it’s the art of educating through entertainment.
Sue Richards, executive director of the State Theatre
What started in the first year with 750 to 1,000 students has grown considerably: “At the end of the school year, we will have seen more than 10,000 youngsters in the theater for 27 performances,” Richardson said in an email interview.
Marshal Elementary School teacher Mark Heinzinger has taken students to four or five different programs over the past two years.
“The varied offerings seemed educational, engaging and fun. As we have attended a number, we have been very impressed with the events our students have been able to participate in,” Heinzinger said in an email.
The State partners with the Stanislaus County Office of Education for the program, and teachers such as Heinzinger sign up to have their classes attend. Cutbacks in art-based lessons created a need for the State’s program but also presented a bit of a challenge in getting some to sign on with their class time.
“Due to Common Core, teachers were having a harder time justifying sending students off campus for arts-based programs. Instead, they needed math- and science-based programs and we decided, based on that feedback, to make substantial changes to the content of our program,” Richardson said.
Continuing that programming, the 2015-16 YEP season includes a partnership with the Lawrence Hall of Science, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, The Great Valley Museum and two educators from East Los Angeles who perform as the Math Rappers. In addition, the State is bringing in best-selling children’s book authors Barney Saltzberg and Deborah Underwood; former Modesto poet laureate and Modesto Junior College professor Sam Pierstorff; and the Kenn Adams Adventure Theatre. Adams’ interactive performances meet Common Core standards in reading, writing, English language arts and theater, “and kids and teachers alike love him,” Richardson added.
Due to a partnership with SCOE, children from throughout the county participate in YEP. The State also invites charter schools and home-schoolers to attend.
“The programs are all great fun, so there’s learning, there’s adventure – because most of the kids haven’t been to a theater, much less a historic theater – and there’s the excitement that comes from seeing a live show presented by professional performers and presenters,” she said. “Our hope is always that perhaps one of these programs will change a child’s life, perhaps send them on a career path in a field they might never have considered, ignite a passion for lifelong learning or, at the very least, spark a real appreciation for the theatergoing experience.”
The program is “enriching for students who may not otherwise get an opportunity to experience the arts as part of their lives,” Heinzinger agreed.
“The shows have provided a common experience for all students that can be built upon for writing, reading, research, great discussion and conversation,” Heinzinger said. “The shows provide a way to have students celebrate the joy and wonder of live events, and this can be a powerful motivation for future learning.”
The State uses grant funding, local family foundations and individual donations to pay for the YEP program. In addition to the free shows, some funds also are available to help teachers offset transportation costs to the theater.
“We spoke to people all over the country about what the greatest impediments to participation might be, and everyone said – and this goes for schools across the United States – the cost of transportation,” Richardson said. “Even with the transportation grants, we have some schools send their students on city buses, and others send their students by foot if they’re within a few miles of the theater. One school’s students always walk, en masse, to our performances.”
The State offers free curriculum guides for most programs to help teachers incorporate the presentations into their lesson plans. “By the time the kids reach the theater, they’re primed to learn more and delve further into a subject, a theory, a principle or a character,” Richardson said.
YEP is a program that offers instant gratification. When you attend even one YEP presentation, as most of our donors do, you instantly see what your donation is accomplishing, and for so many.
Sue Richards, executive director of the State Theatre
All that delving does not make for any sort of staid, prim-and-proper theatergoing experience. “We don’t expect the kids to sit quietly in their seats,” Richardson said. “We encourage whooping and hollering and yelling out the answers to math problems. We ask them to stomp their feet and clap their hands. What better way to learn than through having a great time with your school chums?” Richardson said. “We go for the laughs and try and put a smile on everyone’s face.”
And it’s not just the kids having all that fun.
“It’s all very personal, and the entire staff interacts with the kids. For instance, if we have a smaller group and the kids are full of energy, we might invite them to come up onstage, crank up some iTunes and we all dance madly for five minutes,” she said. “When the kids leave, we’re all out on the sidewalk waving crazily as the buses pull away from the curb.”
Pat Clark: 209-578-2312