A boy lay very still on the floor of a classroom at the Brent Elementary School, 3rd and D Streets SE. A classmate kicked him gently. "You're not dead anymore," she said. The boy got up, and the next skit began in teacher Susa McInerney's creative dramatics class.
Each of Brent's 316 students spends a lively hour every Friday in classes like this one through an arts enrichment program. The program, which began in March and is funded through next January, is run by the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, a non-profit community school for the arts. A $6,500 grant from the Hattie Strong Foundation pays the tuition for 217 students. Parents finance classes for the remaining 99 pupils.
Pupils from kindergarten through sixth grade elect courses in such subjects as puppet making, cartooning, dance, acrobatics, creative writing, painting, journalism, chorus, drums, recorder, or Spanish. Brent principal Herbert Boyd calls the program "freedom choice Friday."
Boyd cites the enrichment classes as an example of what parent involvement can accomplish. "The parents recognized that the resources public schools have for such programs are limited, so they did something about it," he said. The school's PTA interested the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in the project, and the workshop obtained the foundation money to fund it, said Boyd.
"When we first started the kids weren't used to singing," said chorus teacher Victoria Bussey after congratulating her students on a rendition of "Supercallifragilisticexpialidocious." "It shocked me. It shocked me. It was hard getting them to sing. It was as if they didn't like what they sounded like. But we certainly don't have that problem anymore."
Across a thin partition from the singing, Steve Johnson taught acrobatics in the gym. The school's regular physical education teacher worked with some students on one mat. Johnson stood on another mat, while student Wanda Frink stood on his knees.
"Hands out to your sides and look back," instructed Johnson. Wanda complied and them jumped down, squealing. "His pants are slippery," she told the student next in line.
"Some of these kids can already do difficult things like walkovers," said Johnson, who performs in Capitol Hill Arts Workshop productions.
"You sure did a nice sewing job today," Shelia Miller told a member of her second-and-third-grade puppetmaking class. "I like the way you were thinking independently about adding blonde hair."
As the puppet makers cleared out, Miller swept the floor, getting ready for her fourth, fifth-and sixth-grade class in cartooning. These and some other classes are held in the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop facilities, three blocks from Brent School. An adult walks the children between the two locations. When the cartooning class arrived, the students got right to work, on some cartoons for The Brent Journal, a newspaper to be produced by the journalism class.
For young writers in Sharon Ambrose's creative writing class for second and third graders, the subject matter was mixed-up nursery rhymes. Justine Dymond coughed and giggled into the tape recorder and read her work, a variation on "Jack, Be Nimble."
Drama teacher Noel Holmes and his second and third grade drama students couldn't seem to pull their feet loose from the floor of the school's multi-purpose room.
"We were on the moon," Holmes explained later," and it was made of soft, sticky cheese." Holmes, a percussionist and actor who has performed with Stevie Wonder, thinks exercises like these help kids work out problems.
Joey, that's fantastic!" said artist Marianna Gasteyer. Joey Tomlin, a member of Gasteyer's painting class for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, sat on the ground outside the school painting a picture of a nearby tree.
Gasteyer and dancer Sally Crowell, who now serves as director of the groups, began holding informal classes for neighborhood adults and children in 1972. Today, in addition to the program at Brent School, the workshop conducts 42 classes in the arts for more than 300 students.