Starting this fall, drama instructors from Center ARTES at CSUSM, a nonprofit arts education program housed within the University, will begin working with all fourth graders and their teachers at Maryland Elementary to enhance reading skills through a unique theater program.

The pilot program called TELL, Theater for English Language Learning, recently received an $18,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to offer a one-year curriculum that brings Center ARTES instructors into the classroom for an hour each week. TELL will focus on teaching reading skills through a blend of theatrical performances and reading exercises. More than 70 percent of the students that attend the Vista-based school are English language learners.

“We are always looking for opportunities to increase good instructional techniques for listening, speaking, reading, and writing,” said Karen Burke, principal of Maryland Elementary. “Drama and theater are the perfect way to build that with a purpose in mind so that it’s meaningful for our students.”

The children and their teachers will work with two teaching artists, Eduardo Parra and adjunct professor Radhika Rao, as well as VPA professor Judy Bauerlein to create a theatrical performance adapted from Sara Pennypacker’s award-winning book series, Clementine, which chronicles the adventures of a precocious third grader. Each of the fourth grade classes will write and act in their own short play based on the books. The program will also include a special guest appearance from Clementine author Sara Pennypacker and illustrator Marla Frazee.

“The children at Maryland Elementary have enormous potential,” said Dr. Merryl Goldberg, executive director of Center ARTES at CSUSM. “They have shown it and their teachers know it, despite the barriers of homelessness, low income, and concurrent learning of English alongside of content matter. TELL will provide the children with a unique opportunity that engages them in learning English, reading, communication skills, and public speaking skills through theater.”

Center ARTES was one of 1,145 nonprofit organizations to recently receive a grant from NEA, which just awarded more than $88 million to support projects nationwide. As an independent agency of the federal government, NEA strives to advance artistic excellence, creativity, and innovation for the benefit of individuals and communities.

“It is our aim to ensure that everyone continues to have the opportunity to experience and participate in the arts,” said Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

While Maryland Elementary will be the first school to participate in TELL, Center ARTES hopes to expand its efforts and offer the service to other campuses in the future.

The philosophy behind the programs offered by Center ARTES, which was founded in 2003, is to teach with and through the arts, rather than focusing exclusively on teaching about the arts. Goldberg explained that art can be a powerful tool for teachers to utilize in the classroom to help students both further their subject-matter understanding and be introduced to the arts as well. For example, music and rhythm can help teach difficult math concepts, dance can teach anatomy and physiology, drama can teach history or politics, or writing poetry can boost confidence and competence in self-expression.

Each year through various outreach programs like TELL and the ARTSmobile, Center ARTES is able to enrich public education for more than 5,000 students in the region at no cost to the schools. To support these efforts, the nonprofit hosts an annual fundraiser called Art in Your HEART! Slated for November 5, this year’s fourth annual event will premiere an anti-violence film created by high school students from All Tribes Charter School on the Rincon Nation of Luiseño Indians Reservation.

 “The arts can, and do, make a difference in a child’s schooling by effectively engaging the student in the learning process and motivating the child to perform well,” explained Goldberg. “In bringing programs such as TELL to our schools, we bring much more than a specific program; we bring opportunities for children to learn, shine and set a path of excellence for their future learning.”

 “The arts can, and do, make a difference in a child’s schooling by effectively engaging the student in the learning process and motivating the child to perform well,” explained Dr. Merryl Goldberg, executive director of Center ARTES at CSUSM.