Second-graders who created an opera were transformed by it

On white pages in a red scrapbook that Donna Manwarren clutches to her chest are the words she wrote a decade ago to describe a transformation of her 7-year-old daughter, Nicole Grey.

Gets up promptly in the morning, no crying. . .

Completes her homework assignments without usual coaxing. . .

Overall Nicole seemed to have matured 2/3 years in her expressive speech, in her sensitivity to others and their feelings, and has a new sense of self confidence.

The same year that No Child Left Behind was born, so, too, was a program at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School in Montgomery County that gave a rare opportunity to a class of second-graders, many from low-income neighborhoods and homes where English wasn’t regularly spoken. That year, infused into every part of the students’ curriculum was the creation of an opera.

Their teachers describe seeing striking changes in them. Shy students began to speak more. Students who hated writing began filling pages on end with their thoughts. Students who were ambivalent about school suddenly began showing up every day.

“We would see in our students what I used to call a fuzziness,” said Ellen Bloom, who started the class in 2001 along with Mary Ruth McGinn. “They were just not there. They were not engaged. The opera really took care of that. It woke them up.”

But what happened once those students left that classroom? Did they stay awake?

On a recent Saturday night, the answers to those questions stood before them, taller and more mature than their teachers remembered.

A decade after the first students passed through the program, several dozen alumni from six classes gathered in front of an elementary school stage that most hadn’t seen in years. It was their first reunion, a celebration that also served as an opportunity to gauge the long-term impact of an ambitious arts education program, the kind disappearing from many money-strapped public schools.

Even in affluent Montgomery County, the opera program was greeted with skepticism, McGinn and Bloom recalled. Some parents questioned the program’s worth, some teachers argued that it would set up students for later disappointment when they returned to a normal classroom, and some administrators worried about its impact on test scores.

Instead the second-graders performed on par with their peers on tests and showed better attendance, more advanced writing skills and a greater likelihood of being designated gifted and talented.

“People told us over and over again you couldn’t do this,” McGinn reminded her former students. “But you did, and you showed everybody.”

Becoming a butterfly

Bloom and McGinn said the magic of the program is that the children create every aspect of the opera. They serve, among other jobs, as electricians, composers, writers, makeup artists and public relation officers. The themes also flow from discussions in each class and over the years have included “dependence,” “legacy” and “freedom.”

For Bianca Rodriguez, second grade was the year she became a butterfly.

“We were learning about metamorphosis,” said Rodriguez, now a 17-year-old senior. “We learned how things start out small, and they change into something beautiful.”

That year, the class attended “Madame Butterfly” at the Kennedy Center and took care of caterpillars, watching them grow. Rodriguez couldn’t help seeing the parallels between herself — the daughter of immigrants who spoke little English when she entered kindergarten — and that squirming, rapidly changing creature behind the glass.

“I strongly believe that being in the opera helped my confidence a lot,” said Rodriguez, who was a performer her year. “In school, when we give presentations, I’m never shy. I’m never one of those people who want to go last. I’m one of those people who want to go first.”

The opera program also taught her not to be a helpless bystander, she said. A few years ago, Rodriguez was in Paraguay for a community service trip when she saw two teenagers taunting a homeless man slumped outside a building. The title of the opera during her year was “Down We Fall, Up We Rise,” and its lesson was that people are individuals and shouldn’t be bullied.

She recalled: “I turned around and said, ‘Why are you doing that? What if that was you? How would you feel?’ ”

She handed the man a snack and told him not to worry, that everyone has problems. “He stood up, and it looked like he was in so much pain,” she said. “He grabbed my hand, and he said, ‘Thank you so much.’ ”

Paola Erazo, 17, was also a performer that year. She now lives in Ecuador and hopes to become a politician one day. She credits the class, her favorite to this day, with the reason she is able to speak easily before crowds and still loves to write. In her spare time, she is working on a book, which translated is titled “The Magical and Peculiar Kingdom of Eureka.”

“If I would have been in a normal second-grade class, I would have been a normal girl,” Erazo said. “It’s not that I consider myself extraordinary, but not many 17-year-olds can write a book.”

Undervaluing arts education

Bloom and McGinn last taught together in 2006. That year, McGinn took the opera program to Spain, where it now exists in about two dozen schools. She now teaches at Stedwick Elementary School in Montgomery Village, where her students are working on an opera. Bloom is a teacher at Sargent Shriver Elementary School in Silver Spring.

Both teachers said they worry about the current state of education and the diminishing value of art in schools. The training they received to run the program is no longer available.

In 2008, only half of all 18-year-olds had received any arts education, a decline of 23 percent since 1982, according to a 2011 report by the National Endowment for the Arts. The report also found that the decline was much more stark among black and Hispanic children. From 1982 to 2008, black and Hispanic students experienced respective drops of 49 percent and 40 percent in their exposure to arts education, compared with a statistically insignificant decline for white children.

Promising futures

On the night of the reunion, the students took turns sharing memories. Nicole Grey spoke first, projecting her voice as her teachers taught her.

“At 7 years old as a production manager, I thought that my little minute-and-a-half speech was the most epic thing ever,” she said. “However, what this opera, when it finally came together, showed me at least was that no matter how big or small one person’s job was, it didn’t matter because not one of us could have done it by ourselves. Yes, in our classroom, we learned fractions, how to tell time and that oil will sit on top of water. But I also feel as though we learned more.”

She wants to go to college and perhaps become a teacher. If she does, she said, she hopes to reach her students the same way Bloom and McGinn took hold of her.

“If I could just do that that for one child,” Grey said. “And they did that for an entire class.”

Before the night ended, the teachers had one more lesson for their students. They passed around a plastic bag filled with pebbles.

“We want to give you a reminder,” McGinn said, “that we’re expecting you to make ripples.”

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
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