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Disney bridges gap in funding for elementary school musicals

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With theater instruction sharply declining in elementary schools across the country, Disney is stepping up its support of musical productions in Orange County schools largely serving students from disadvantaged families.

The Segerstrom Center for the Arts received a $100,000, two-year grant from the entertainment giant to help produce the musicals with the aim of building sustainable theater programs within the schools.

Four are participating this year: Price Elementary School in Anaheim, Eisenhower and Hill elementary schools in Garden Grove and Rea Elementary School in Costa Mesa.

Another four schools will be selected for the next academic year. 

RELATED: Obscure state law requires all students be taught the arts

The Disney Musicals in Schools program has served more than 60 schools across the country since its launch in 2009. This is the first year in California for the program. Beyond supporting musical theater in the schools, Disney views the productions as a training ground for students.

"We need future theater makers as much as we need future theater goers,” said Lisa Mitchell, senior manager of education and outreach for Disney Theatrical Group, the division that supports the school program and produces Disney's Broadway shows like "The Lion King." 

At Price Elementary, about 60 students have been preparing for a production of "Aladdin." The musical will be the school's first theater production and opens in March.

For many of the students, it's the first time they are participating in a play and, for some, they are experiencing Disney close up for the first time.

Sixth-grade teacher Carmina Cunningham said she drives by the Matterhorn every day on her way to work, but estimates only about half of her students have visited the famous theme park. Nearly 75 percent of the students at Price qualify for free or reduced price lunches based on their low family income.

Cunningham says as her school focuses on preparing students for standardized tests, arts instruction takes a back seat — she says her kids get just one visual arts lesson per month with occasional music instruction mixed in.

"It feels like we’ve been in some sort of arts drought for awhile where we haven’t had a whole lot of support," Cunningham said.

The arts offering at Price is far less than California requires in its state education code. All 1st to 12th-graders should have access to all four art forms (dance, visual arts, theater and music) every year of their public education. 

In a KPCC survey of 41 Southern California school districts earlier this year, officials reported that theater was least likely to be taught at the elementary level. Middle and high school students get more access to theater instruction than younger students. 

Nationally, young students rarely receive sustained theater experiences. Just 4 percent of elementary students receive regular theater exposure, according to James Palmarini, director of educational policy at the Educational Theater Association.

Schools are increasingly moving away from teaching theater on their own, he said. They are turning instead to a practice known as "arts integration" where elements of theater get mixed into other subjects like language arts.

'Aladdin' and arts learning

At Price Elementary in Anaheim last week, around 60 students sat on the floor holding their music books. Ten-year-old Anthony Navarro was among them, preparing to play Aladdin in his school’s production.

"It’s amazing," he said. "It’s a great experience and you have a lot of fun."

Cunningham says she’s been surprised at how much the program is helping to build her students’ confidence. 

Fourth-grader Aleksander Mendez has been hard at work, too, preparing for his role as the magic carpet. 

"Inside I feel a bit nervous," Aleksander said. "I like singing and all, but I’m not sure of, that I get the part correct."

Cunningham is one of four teachers from Price Elementary who are teamed with teaching artists from the Segerstrom Center. They in turn have been trained by Disney's theater experts.

When Segerstrom teaching artist Megan Hook and her colleagues asked the students what arts experience they'd had, the artists soon realized they were starting at ground zero. They feel they’re not improving students’ skills but creating them.

And they don’t have much time, Hook said.

"We got to get these kids singing and dancing in 12, 17 weeks, and put a show on," she said.

The teachers and students are hoping for donations to make this all work — and leaning on parents and the community to help with costumes and props. Disney provides scripts, training and program oversight free of charge, but it's up to schools to supply many other production essentials. 

"We are kind of in that moment of not knowing and trusting that the next few weeks we’re going to see this kind of tail wind and we’re going to start to catch momentum," Hook said.

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