Lincoln Elementary Students Gain Arts Education Performing in ‘The Lion King Jr.’

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Lincoln elementary students Jacob Kaiser, Milla Hamilton and Ava Keiser rehearsing “The Lion King Jr.”

The state of arts education in California is appalling, especially considering a state law that requires all students receive sequential, standards-based visual and performing arts education.

Sadly, only 11 percent of schools meet that requirement.

SRI Education’s latest study, “Creativity Challenge: The State of Arts Education in California,” was commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in 2022 as a follow-up to the 2007 “An Unfinished Canvas: Arts Education in California.”

The report reveals that a majority of California schools continue to fail to meet the state’s arts education mandate of offering all California students dance, music, theater, and visual arts instruction.

Insufficient funding and a lack of training for teachers remain the biggest barriers to providing excellent arts education throughout the state.

Those statistics are true even in Newport Beach, but help has arrived thanks to a partnership with Costa Mesa-based Arts & Learning Conservatory and Vanguard University.

On January 16, 30 students from Lincoln Elementary in Corona del Mar (part of the Newport-Mesa School District) presented a half-hour, kid-friendly musical version of “The Lion King” for parents and friends. This fully-costumed and choreographed production was the first time most of those students had been exposed to theater.

The production came about through a grant program called #CaliforniansForAll College Corps, which places student fellows with nonprofits working to overcome societal challenges related to three areas: food insecurity, climate action, and in this case, K-12 education. College students receive a stipend of up to $10,000 (helping with college debt) and an opportunity to give back to others while taking what they learn in the college classroom out into the community.

Vanguard University student Montana Leyva poses with Lincoln elementary student Ava Keiser. Photo by Chris Trela

Vanguard sophomore Montana Leyva (double major in technical theater and business) is a College Corps fellow with Arts & Learning Conservatory, where she spent three months mentoring youth while helping with choreography and rehearsals for “The Lion King” production.

According to Katie Hennen, ALC’s Director of Education, her organization has built relationships with seven schools in the Newport-Mesa school district. The district paid for the arts programming so students could participate for free.

Katie Hennen, ALC’s Director of Education, at a rehearsal for “The Lion King Jr.” photo by Chris Trela

“Prop 28 funding from the state is going to all schools so they can use it to invest in arts programming, which in this case is an investment in Arts & Learning Conservatory,” explained Hennen. “Schools do not have the resources to hire someone full time to provide an arts focused education, so we come in and bring the arts to the students.”

“Lincoln does not have a theater program, nobody is trained to do it. Most kids have never done this before,” added Hennen. “The students in ‘The Lion King’ are in third through sixth grade. They spend over 60 hours of free arts education over 12 weeks. The kids have a safe place to go, they can have fun and interact with their peers.”

Hennen quoted statistics from the Orange County Department of Education that show a student in elementary school that is involve with arts programming is five times less likely to drop out of school before they are 18, and they are four times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree and four times more likely during middle school to earn some sort of academic acknowledgement.

“Arts programming in the school is incredibly important, it’s a place where students can learn how to communicate and to express themselves, and learn how to understand and process their own emotions through their characters,” said Hennen. “It helps build vocabulary because they’re working with scripts and learning new words. They are learning skills with the music as well as dance, which has been proven to help with mathematics and general coordination. There is so much that can help them.”

And with “The Lion King,” Hennen noted that the students are getting exposed to the world and different cultures.

Leyva is a sophomore at Vanguard University who loves the behind-the-scenes approach to theater. She was raised in the service world—her parents are both first responders. One of the pillars of Vanguard is service, and Leyva loves doing meaningful work in the community, so as Leyva stated, “it’s a match made in heaven.”

One of the most remarkable things about working with the Lincoln students on “The Lion King,” said Leyva, is to see the growth in the students over the course of 12 weeks.

“Performing in the spotlight is not for everybody, but we wanted to find out what their passion is so I suggested some of the kids might enjoy tech and backstage work, and it was their perfect spot,” said Leyva. “Other kids found their passion. I gave them the mentorship and guidance that they need to express themselves properly. Kids who would not talk the first couple of weeks are now our most vivacious people on stage. It warms my heart to see that. These kids are going to carry this experience for a long time.”

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