Arts Access

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By Jade Shojaee

On Thursday Feb 16, some 400 low income students crowded into Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts to enjoy a live production of Charlotte’s Web, presented by Theatreworks USA and Diablo Regional Arts Association (DRAA). Since 2008, DRAA, the non-profit partner for the Lesher Center for the Arts, has made it possible for more than 50,000 Contra Costa families and youth to attend professional, high-quality performances at the Lesher Center through their Education & Outreach program.

Since it opened in 1990, the Lesher Center for the Arts has become a cultural and economic force in Walnut Creek, hosting nearly 1,000 productions and community events a year and selling a record 230,000 tickets in 2009. “With DRAA’s support, the Lesher Center, and other professional arts organizations, have transformed downtown Walnut Creek into an entertainment, dining, retail, and conference destination,” said DRAA’s executive director, Peggy White. “We believe in the power of the arts to enrich lives and we would like to continue to enrich the lives of every qualifying student and teacher in the East Bay.”

It is no secret that increasing state mandates and decreasing budgets have accounted for the significant decline in the presence of art education in public schools. Paradoxically, studies have long shown a correlation between academic performance and exposure to the arts in students. According to a study by the Music for All Foundation, participation in music courses in California alone have dropped by 46% over the past decade, despite increases in total school enrollment. DRAA is working to bridge that gap, and bring the arts back to students who otherwise would not be exposed to them.

“Every student should have the opportunity to experience the magic of live theatre. However, not every student in the East Bay come from families or attend schools that are able to facilitate those experiences,” said White.  “In many cases, this is the first time these students have been able to see a live performance or a visual arts exhibition.”

Qualifying Title I schools are schools in which 60% or more of their students are on the free or reduced-cost lunch program. DRAA provides free transportation and tickets to shows ranging from Theatreworks USA’s children’s production of Charlotte’s Web to Center REPertory’s professional production of A Christmas Carol.  They also provide customized performance activity kits to help teachers tie students’ experiences at the Lesher Center with what they are learning in school. The kits meet the California’s Common Core Standards and offer suggestions for in-class discussions and projects.

“This program was exceptional,” said 5th grade Sutter Elementary School teacher, Vicki McGuire.

“I have been teaching for 30 years and this is one of the very best field trips I have ever experienced. Most of my students have never attended a theatrical production of this calibre in their lives. The amazing actors brought this story to life for my students in a way that reading the book never could.”

“The Arts Access School Time Program provides an experience of awe and wonder outside of everyday life,” said DRAA Arts Education Manager, Jody Cook. “The programs offered are meaningful, and we hear from teachers over and over that their students are inspired.  Sometimes inspired to become an actor or a dancer, and sometimes to consider a dilemma differently.  These are incredible outcomes. To imagine that an hour or two can have a lasting impact beyond the actual experience of a field trip is pretty special.”

For interested teachers and schools, a schedule of school show performances and exhibits, along with an easily accessible, user-friendly application can be accessed at DRAA.org.

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