For decades, teacher Rafe Esquith has staged Shakespeare plays with students from Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Koreatown. Most of the kids come from low-income families and English isn’t their first language -- and yet every Spring, they put on a show.
The novel program propelled Esquith into teacher stardom. His fourth book is due out this summer, he's been featured in a PBS documentary and his fan-base includes Oprah Winfrey and Sir Ian McKellen.
But the program's success and Esquith's notoriety haven't spared Hobart elementary from statewide cuts to school arts programs.
As Esquith celebrates his 30th anniversary, he says a lot has changed since he first started the Shakespeare program back in the 1980s.
"The fact is we keep cutting the wrong things in schools," said Esquith, who is celebrating 30 years as a teacher at Hobart. "Cutting arts programs is killing us."
Hobart after-school programming has been severely cut back, said principal Jonathan Paek. This year, it had to say goodbye to its orchestra teacher after 33 years.
The Shakespeare program has survived because it's budget is completely separate. It's funded by a nonprofit created by a former student. It relies largely on donations and spends a few hundred thousand dollars a year -- some of that money goes toward travel expenses as the troupe takes its show to cities across the U.S..
"I’m a lucky teacher, I have a lot of help and I have a lot of experience so I have an arts program here," Esquith said. "But the funding to the arts is essential to a child’s development."
Classroom dynamics have also shifted drastically since Esquith started the program in the 1980s.
No Child Left Behind Act brought more classroom testing, which put more emphasis on teaching what was on the test. Esquith said that left little time for running Shakespeare lines, so the program was pushed outside of normal school hours.
"There’s no question that a teacher’s independence has been severely hampered," he said.
Paek the school principal, said the program seems to pay off for Esquith's students. The production process teaches them life skills like teamwork, communication and kindness. Former Shakespeare students have gone on to colleges like UCLA, Stanford and Yale.
"When I started in this classroom I was really, really shy, nervous," said Brandeaux Lazo, 10, one of the stars of this year's production The Tempest. "Being in the play kind of, you know, it's helped me, like think of things differently. It’s really great."
Lazo plays Caliban. For him, starring in the play meant finding the time to practice Shakespeare in an already complicated home life.
Lazo speaks Spanish as his first language and learned English as he got older. His parents are divorced and his mother works the graveyard shift.
He had to carve out practice time in the evenings, running lines with his babysitter as they juggled caring for his three-year-old brother.
Other students went through similar struggles to prepare for the play. Esquith estimates that the entire process takes 55,000 hours of collective work.
And while he could have put on an elaborate production, he puts it on in his 700 square foot classroom, as any other teacher would. The stage is not much larger than a cafeteria lunch table and makeshift bleachers take up the rest of the room.
The students will perform in three more shows this season before the play wraps up Saturday. And Esquith is already planning for next year.
He wants to put on Shakespeares' romance Cymbeline, complete with bagpipes.
With no orchestra teacher, Esquith will have to teach the students the instrument himself. But first, he’ll have to learn how to play it.