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Theater pilot program aims to take on racial equity in high schools

Aiken High School students perform Hairspray Jr. as part of the Jumpstart Theatre Program in 2019.
Aiken High School students perform Hairspray Jr. as part of the Jumpstart Theatre program in 2019.

Black and Hispanic students nationally have less than half the access to arts education than white students, according to a study from the National Endowment for the Arts. A new pilot program called Pathways is meant to bridge that gap and take on the issue of racial equity.

Aiken High School is one of two beneficiaries of the national program and will be performing "Aladdin Jr." this spring.

"The vision for this program is that schools will receive a $10,000 grant, which is the approximate cost of putting on a school theater production, and they will choose a play or a musical that fosters racial dialogue in their communities. We're specifically targeting low-income communities [and] communities of color because they have less access to theater in general," said Allison Dolan, chief content officer at the Educational Theatre Association.

She says Pathways was founded after Hollywood producer Craig Zadan died in 2018 and the association held a fundraising event in his memory.

"It was Craig's vision that school theater could help really address racial equity in a powerful way. That is how the Pathways program, that whole concept, was born," she said.

Pathways is designed to bring powerful theater experiences to students and pair them with mentors of color.

That's especially important at schools like Aiken, where all students qualify for free or reduced lunch and the student population is made up of kids from almost 30 different countries.

Terri McCoy, choral music and theater director at Aiken, said the $10,000 grant has given the theater program life.

"This is huge. With theater being pretty much shut down for the last two years, our program that we had just started before COVID kind of fell apart," she said.

The school received the grant, in part, because of its previous affiliation with Jumpstart Theatre, which serves middle school students. It also was selected out of a pool of national applicants.

"The kids are so excited," she said, noting the scripts for the show came in recently and they were able to unbox them together and begin going over the production.

Tri-Cities High School in the Atlanta metro area was the other school selected to receive a grant. They're performing "FELA! The Musical."

The Educational Theatre Foundation is working to make the pilot program permanent by establishing a $1.25 million endowment to fund five Pathways grants every year across the country.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.