Students at Crittenden Middle School are preparing to tell the story of a magical factory run by a mad man in a top hat. On Friday and Saturday, March 23 and 24, the school will stage "Willy Wonka," a musical adaptation of the famous Roald Dahl book, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
The play marks a major achievement for the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students who have been rehearsing the musical for the past four months -- many of whom have never participated in such an elaborate project. But for Leanne Rzepiela, music and performing arts director for Crittenden, the production represents much more.
This year Crittenden boasts three concert bands, two orchestras, two choirs, a jazz band, barbershop clubs and an annual spring musical production. "That's a lot," Rzepiela says -- especially considering that more than 55 percent of the students at the school come from families on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.
That's nearly 20 percent more than the number of low-income children attending Graham, which is often considered Mountain View's performing arts middle school. It's not that it's a contest. For Rzepiela, what matters is that schools offer opportunities for kids to participate in the arts free of charge. Unfortunately, arts programs are being cut all over the country, and low-income communities are being hit the hardest.
"I think every kid needs arts programs," Rzepiela says. "It doesn't matter what their background is or where they come from."
That's why she is so happy to work at Crittenden. Schools with similar demographics in the Central Valley have been forced to cut arts programs for lack of funding, Rzepiela says. However, the Mountain View Whisman School District -- with the help of its parcel tax and the Mountain View Educational Foundation -- has managed to keep arts programs very well funded.
"Mountain View is a great arts community," Rzepiela says.
Since starting at Crittenden eight years ago, she has found that the community has been extremely supportive of her efforts to grow Crittenden's performing arts program. Rzepiela says she has received no shortage of parent donations and volunteers offering a helping hand. "It's kind of unusual for a lower- and middle-income school to have that level of support for the arts."
It is precisely that kind of support that has allowed Crittenden to bring on people like Rzepiela, as well as Arlene Miyata -- who oversees the middle school's string orchestras and concert bands -- and Jennifer Packard, who is directing Willy Wonka.
Packard is education and outreach director for the Tabard Theatre Company in San Jose. She was hired to head up this year's musical.
According to Packard, theater has the potential to transform a child's life. During the production of Willy Wonka, the children have learned the basics of reading sheet music, improved their singing voices and refined their motor skills; they've built sets and learned about lighting and sound production; the theater has given them a place to be goofy and release energy in a socially acceptable manner; they have gained public speaking experience. "The biggest thing that children of this age group learn is self-confidence and self-esteem," she says.
"If you don't have self confidence, it's pretty hard to be good at anything at school," Rzepiela notes.
Art for all
Packard credits both Rzepiela and the school's principal, Karen Robinson, for the school's strong performing arts programs.
"Every child has talent," Robinson says, explaining why she has made performing arts a priority at Crittenden. "And we want to look for all kinds of talent in children and be able to give the other side of their brain the education they deserve. The whole child deserves to be given opportunities."
As such, Robinson says, while Crittenden does charge rental fees for instruments, no child is ever discouraged from joining a band due to their inability to pay those fees.
"We all need to focus on putting arts programs back into schools in need," Rzepiela says. "Lower income schools especially, because those students don't have the same opportunities as other students whose parents have the ability to put them into private arts programs."