Rodrigo Vasquez, 11, did not want to sit around and play video games this summer.
It’s his first summer in Fresno after his family moved from Selma seven months ago “in search of a better life,” he said. He already misses his new school, Webster Elementary, and homework.
So Rodrigo decided to “take this new step” and participate in Theatre Summer School, a program for second- through fifth-graders at Roosevelt High School that began June 14. It is part of Fifth Grade on Broadway, an arts-enrichment program that Francine and Murray Farber began with a $100,000 grant to Fresno Unified School District.
The students split into groups, write scripts based on fables, design sets and costumes, and learn theater techniques during rehearsal.
Rodrigo said he already has learned how to speak in public with more volume and how to be positive. He has thought about being a director or a TV personality, so public speaking is critical.
He smiled and struck a pose. “It’s my thang,” Rodrigo said.
Seven teachers teach four subjects: theater movement, visual arts, script writing and rehearsals. The teachers show students how to pantomime the movements of foxes, ants and lions; how to design animal hats; and help develop their stage presence.
The final performance for parents will be July 8 during school hours, from 9 to 11:45 a.m.
With all this turmoil in the world, it’s more important for children to have a way to express themselves.
Francine Farber, donor
Three teenagers from Roosevelt High help the elementary school students with their projects and help teachers manage the groups.
Roosevelt senior Ernesto Castro, 16, who wants to get his teaching credential, said Theatre Summer School is a great way for him to start working with kids. He only has been at it a week, but he is hooked. On Friday, he was helping students paint animal masks.
“I love it. I love it so much,” Castro said. “These kids really do impact me. I was expecting to be ignored, but every day, they have the hugest smiles on their faces when they see me.”
Theatre Summer School targets children in the fifth grade, but the program was extended to siblings and finally to all second- through fifth-grade students from Jefferson, Akira Yokomi, Webster, Susan B. Anthony and Lowell elementary schools.
About 90 students participate daily, but the highest one-day count reached 128 students, said Catherine Aujero, Fresno Unified School District’s visual and performing arts manager.
Aujero helps manage the program. She said the program builds responsibility because every child has a role to fulfill.
Behind the scenes, every adult staff member has a role, too: The program coordinates the efforts of Fresno Unified Visual and Performing Arts Department staff, Fresno Arts Council Teaching Artists and Roosevelt High students.
“They’re doing a wonderful job making our dreams a reality,” Francine Farber said. “With all this turmoil in the world, it’s more important for children to have a way to express themselves.”
She and her husband, Murray Farber, are the patrons of the program. They donated the $100,000 that started Fifth Grade on Broadway, which is part of FUSD’s initiative called “Ensuring the Arts for Any Given Child.” The initiative partners with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to create common art experiences at each grade level.
For the fifth grade, that experience is theater.
In addition to sponsoring the summer program, the Farbers have helped 1,200 fifth-graders from 15 Fresno Unified elementary schools attend local theater performances.
Theatre Summer School and Fifth Grade on Broadway add continuity to the Farbers’ involvement in the lives of central Fresno students. Their money now supplements core education with the arts in elementary school, in addition to financing academic excellence through the Steve’s Scholars program at Tehipite Middle School.
“I feel like they’re my kids,” Francine Farber said.
Aujero said this year is like a pilot program, one she hopes will continue next summer as a part of summer school.
The Farbers plan on it.
“A lot of families do not have the opportunity to give exposure to the arts,” Francine Farber said. “We think it’s really important for their development. It feeds into academics.”