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In a culture that has made hope a buzzword for potential and progress, the unfortunate reality is that the “hope” department is always the first to be cut from our public schools. Today education is being reduced to filling in bubbles, where every child is left behind, and there is too little time that can be allocated to the troubled teens even when they’re the most gifted. Even President Obama has remarked that its disappointing that arts programs are being cut in the face of No Child Left Behind.
Despite the downward spiral, there remain some very few old-school teachers who push through the crowded halls, overcome the kids with drug problems, and go the extra mile for their students.
I was privileged to attend an event with one of those unique individuals, in one of those one-in-a-million departments where everyone, students, parents, a teacher, indeed the entire community has rallied around one of the few arts programs in the state of Oklahoma garnering real results with students.
The Yukon High School Drama Department under the direction of instructor Rhonda Hartwig, wasn’t always where it is today. Students met in a large metal building that even the school instructed them to leave in the event of inclement weather. But even that large room was a step up from previous digs. Today, the department has developed into a true anomaly. With classes in one room and a satellite Blackbox Theatre attached, students can perform for small crowds as often as they would like. It comes in handy with the now rarely available thousand person auditorium stage that the students may use only once a year.
While many proclaim the arts to be a waste of time and energy demanding more testing, math, and science this group doesn’t consider Drama to be just about training actors. On the back of a program for a recent performance of The Outsiders appears an autographs section, but the bottom reads
“Never forget, Drama is the bridge that connects every art from. Creative writing, visual art, music, use of voice, dance as stage movement – every art form is reflected on the stage and in the theatre. Participate in life. If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”
Out of 25 years the department has graduated students that work in entertainment in New York and Los Angeles but also youth that have gone on to be some of the greatest public speakers of their class seeing jobs in politics, law, ministry, broadcasting and journalism, media development, marketing, and more with the common thread that the students gained confidence, leadership, and public speaking skills from hours clocked on stage and in class.
“…The surprising talent withint he walls of Yukon High School is crafted and polished to a high standard of Thespian excellence,” says Justin Benefiel now studying at the New York Film School.
“I credit her long-term support as part of why I am successful on Broadway as the Operations Manager of Disney Theatrical Merchandise,” says Shawn Baker of Disney.
“Ms. Hartwig was the person that taught me about the show and the business. Today I’m working as a professional entertainer, and I still work with the same resume model she tought how to do. Most of the tools I use today, I have learned with Ms. Hartwig when I was 17,” says Marlene Schaff.
While the success in the arts is a great element of the program its the people like actress Wendi Maher who graduated in 2002 that have harnessed the practical skills
“When I was introduced to Ms. Hartwig and the drama program in the fall of 1998, I was a timid, self-conscious 14 year old who, like many teenagers, lacked any idea of the direction they hoped to go with their life. During the four years I had the privilege of being part of Yukon Drama, I began my development into the strong, confident, young woman I am today.”
Scott Murry Founder of Infinite Savvy a company that bridges the gap between real estate and technology agrees
“Beyond public speaking skills and self esteem, one of the most important things I learned is that everyone has something beneficial to offer to the situation at hand. Ms. Hartwig had an uncanny ability to make every student feel welcome, needed, and proud to be part of a team who worked together for a common goal.
As a business owner I strive to apply that concept every day. its my job to identify the skill set of each employee and properly assign tasks accordingly to their strengths while challenging their weaknesses to promote growth. That is the type of necessary life skill you can’t learn from a book . . .”
A recent piece in Education Magazine advocates for Drama Programs by citing a UCLA study that proves children in the arts tend to test better:
“While many parents fear participation in drama will damage their child’s academic progress, a UCLA study concluded that students involved in the arts tend to have higher academic performance and better standardized test scores — nearly 100 points better on the SAT, according to a separate study by The College Board.
Academic gains aren’t the only benefits. There are the obvious ones: improved self-confidence, better public speaking skills, but [instructive Gari] Jones says students show other gains as well, such as the “ability to work with an ensemble in cooperative ventures” and the “ability to work through consensus and differences or obstacles to achieve a goal.” She points out that a play requires students to follow a time line, to use self-discipline, and to accept feedback. Studying theater can be a great starting point for careers such as teaching, law, and politics, not to mention broadcasting and performing. And the ability to speak confidently in front of a group is a boon for any career.”
On a warm spring day not too far from Graduation, students were greeted by several great treats. First, former students who had just graduated from the American Music and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles returned to perform and speak to students about successes and attainable goals. Second, internationally known artist Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips was to also speaking to students about their potential and achieving their dreams. The Flaming Lips were recently awarded as the State Rock Song for the state of Oklahoma for their tune Do You Realize. Oklahoman’s voted online to choose
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