Engaged Families and Communities

Students involved in Howenstine High Magnet School's theater arts program rehearse lines.

Parents Part of the Production in a High School Theater Program

Study after study has shown that arts education is a powerful and important component of adolescent learning. Dance, drama, music, and visual arts provide outlets for creativity, instill discipline, and help us to understand and analyze the world around us.

Research also shows that the academic gains students achieve with high arts participation are greatest for struggling, low-income students at the most risk of academic failure. A decade-long study of after-school programs for low-income youth found that arts programs attracted higher-risk students than sports and had far greater academic and developmental benefits.

What’s more, arts programs in the school also provide opportunities to engage parents in their students’ work in ways that traditional academics might not.

Tom Hall, an English and theater arts teacher at Howenstine High Magnet School in Tucson, Arizona — an intensive support site of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign — knows the importance that theater arts can have in a high school setting. He’s also well cast as a high school drama teacher – he’s played a featured role in the western “Posse” and had parts in the TV series “Legend” and “The Magnificent 7” for CBS. He’s also a member of the Screen Actors Guild for work he’s done in westerns on the silver screen.

The Priority Schools Campaign (PSC) caught up with Hall to talk about the importance of arts education and how his program helps brings families into the high school.

PSC:  First, can you talk about why a theater arts department so important at the high school level?

Hall: Well, it’s important not only at the high school level, but at every level. But in high school especially, it gives the kids an outlet for their energy. It allows them to be creative and dress up and be other people. We started the drama class last year, hoping we could put together maybe one show, and we ended up doing three shows. When we do public performances, the students have the opportunity to perform for friends and family, as well as each other.

It’s also important because it brings people into the school. Those of us involved in the Priority Schools Campaign know that research shows parent, family, and community involvement in education raises achievement and helps us improve our schools.

English and theater arts teacher Tom Hall.

PSC: How did theater become a passion of yours?

Hall: I’d left a teaching job in South Carolina to work in mining and geothermal engineering in Tucson. Bored and looking for a way to fill the off hours, I started performing in community theater throughout Tucson. In 1989, when the mining and engineering fields bottomed out, I returned to teaching as a reading tutor for special needs kids. I incorporated lots of characters and funny voices in reading with kids and soon found myself setting up drama programs at local middle schools.  In the meantime, I started my work in television and commercial westerns, especially when they needed big guys to play lumberjacks or desperadoes. Years later, I still take parts in local productions, my wife and I are regular members of our church’s reader’s theater, but now I am asked more to direct and adapt scripts for groups and schools, especially at Howenstine where I teach full time.

PSC: How did the theater program start at Howenstine?

Hall: During my second year at Howenstine (2010-2011) our principal, Maritza Nunez, gave the go ahead to start a theater arts class. We had 10 students, no budget, and a few old costumes stuffed outside in a storage shed. But we were an instant success nevertheless! We did three shows that year and packed the house every time. We supported ourselves from bake sales and ticket sales and managed to get by. With help from families, we were able to buy scripts, costumes and props, to pay royalties, and to take the kids to a professional stage play each year.

PSC: How are parents engaged in the theater program?

Hall: I have always enjoyed great support from our parents. They have been our biggest supporters and cheerleaders. I have not seen a show yet where all my kids’ parents have not been in the audience. I receive heartfelt, sometimes tearful “thank yous” from parents of kids who have never been willing or able to try being in the spotlight. When they see their kids up there having fun, and entertaining not only the audience, but each other, they get to see a side of their kids they’ve never seen before. The parents of two of my students told me that their child had never expressed any interest in going to college, but now both are looking at classes at Pima Community College for Drama.

PSC: How does the theater program get parents into the school who might not otherwise participate?

Hall: Most of our ticket sales go to parents and families, so that brings them in. But like I said, when we started we had nothing. We started from scratch and the parents came forward to donate props and costumes, and now we have a pretty fair assortment of period costumes. We’ve had costuming and props from Shakespearian plays to Dr. Seuss productions, and the parents really helped with those. So, there’s support all around, from financial to moral encouragement. There’s also logistical support. We’re not a neighborhood school and don’t have activity buses, and a lot of our kids have to travel quite a ways to get to school every day. If they have to come back in the evening for a show, it’s up to the parents to see that they get there and home, and the parents have always been very supportive of that.

PSC: Do the productions bring in families of students not performing in the plays?

Students make posters for Howenstine High Magnet School theater arts program.

Hall: Yes, because it gives a lot of other kids a chance to be a part of it. There’s the backstage work, there’s the production work, there’s the public relations work to sell the tickets, again, mostly to parents and other family members. We have artistic kids who don’t want to be in drama, but want to participate by creating advertising posters. We have kids who volunteer to be ushers or to come sell tickets at the door, and they encourage their parents to come and be a part of it, too. It’s a group and community effort.

PSC: What is unique to the theater arts department that allows parents to get involved in their children’s school work?

Hall: Well one unique way I’ve found that parents are involved is that they simply sit down with their child and help him or her go over lines. Parents tend to feel more comfortable doing that because it’s not a subject like trigonometry or physics, where they may feel a little threatened by the material. But they can easily sit and listen or read from a script with their child. There’s really no wrong way to rehearse a play, learn lines, or get into character. It really contributes to the whole process the kids are going through because the parents are helping them along with it.

PSC: Have other community members been inspired to contribute to the drama department?

Hall: Yes, definitely! We receive a lot of support from other schools and high schools in the district. We’ve had to borrow just about everything—lights, costumes, scripts. We’ve been working on a play set in Dickens Victorian England, and a lot of our costumes in that upcoming show are period costumes. We have a professional wardrobe person here in Tucson who always comes to our shows and really likes the kids, so she’s agreed to provide us with the costumes.

The students have also had opportunities to work with professional playwrights and authors around Tucson, and one of the things that we hope to do at Howenstine is premiere a play by a local author.  And of course community members always donate food and crafts for our bazaars and bake sales.

It’s like we’re a community playhouse in the neighborhood even for people who don’t have kids who go here. For them, it’s like a night out at the theater. We advertise the play on the school marquee out front and neighbors always show up. They say, “Oh, we saw your marquee out there and there’s a show tonight, so here we are!”

PSC: How have the students become leaders in the school and community through the theater arts program?

Hall: For a while, we had a lack of student leaders at Howenstine because there was nothing for them to lead. So we brought back the National Honor Society and have service learning projects, like the Habitat for Humanity house. We also have a student council, obviously the drama program, and things that we do in the community and with our neighbors here that have given the kids the opportunity to develop leadership skills. The students are engaging, interesting, fun, and bright, and now they have the opportunity to stand up and be noticed.

PSC: What do the students say about the theater classes and productions?

Hall: Here’s what kids have shared, with permission, when journaling about class:

“The reason class is important to me is because it’s entertaining. I love entertaining people and might want to be an actor for a career. If this school didn’t have theater arts, I don’t know what I would do…” – DB, a sophomore in his second year in the drama program.

” … it gives you a chance to act as someone else without being judged… to get past all that embarrassment .” – SM, a sophomore girl new to program.

” It’s a lot of work, but it’s mostly worth it. .. not sitting in a desk for an hour, bored, waiting for bell to ring. You don’t pay attention to the clock when you’re in this class.”   – DE, a sophomore who has performed in her first two productions this year.

“It challenges me out of my comfort zone and I really do like having the chance to play different roles for my school.”  – JA, a senior in his second year in the program, who has performed in five shows, and is currently Howenstine’s first ever student director.

PSC: So, what are the spring production plans?

Hall: We’re doing a dinner theater where audience members can have dinner and see a show right at Howenstine! We’re very excited, and the parents are, too!

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