Holly Valentine | July 2019

Community Outreach:
Making it Happen

Community partnership. At first thought, it seems so basic – working with an organization outside of a school to enrich student life. Yes, that’s what it can do, but in reality, it does so much more, for so many more. It warms our hearts.

When a partnership works, it brings a sense of belonging and connection to everyone involved. This extends not only to a classroom or school and a community partner, but to teachers, parents, staff members, and even bystanders in the community. It enriches everyone’s lives, often in unforeseen ways. Making it happen is the creative part, and forces you to think about community in different ways.

Start Small

As a classroom teacher, I knew that I would carry my passion for the theatre into the classroom. I was highly aware that my population of students had never experienced professional theatre, or the power it has to connect people and to make an impact. However, I was also acutely aware that financially, it was not something most of my students or their families had access to.

Ten years ago, I reached out to an arts organization in our community, the Rochester Broadway Theatre League, which brings in the national tours of Broadway shows to our city. Their educational focus was on bringing the theatre to the classroom and the classroom to the theatre. Creating curriculum that aligned with the themes of performances that would be traveling through Rochester, and approaching literary analysis through song lyrics, I watched the capabilities of my students soar.

We had a common experience in our classroom that was deeply reaching them. I knew the projects needed to come full circle by getting these kids to see the show they had been embracing, but purchasing tickets to a Broadway show for elementary students simply isn’t in an elementary school’s budget. But I’m not a person to take no for an answer. I knew there had to be a way.

Make it Happen

Enter community. Not the community of the theatre I was working with, but my own personal community. I turned to the place so many of us do when we need help and advice – social media. I had 24 kids in my room and needed 24 tickets.

It seemed daunting and almost selfish to come out and ask for almost $1500, but asking my friends and family to consider sponsoring one student for $60 seemed like an option. Within 2 days of putting it out there, every single one of my students had a sponsor, and I even had sponsors waiting in the wings! People love kids, and people love the arts. When they can witness them working together, the possibilities are endless.

Monthly, leading up to the show, my kids would write letters to their sponsors, to let them know what was happening, what they were learning about, and how their excitement was building. What a heartwarming moment is was the day a sponsor wrote back to their student, something I never expected, and one by one, other sponsors did the same thing. Our classroom community circle had just expanded, and they all quickly became part of our classroom culture. Each time we received a letter in the mail, we celebrated, and read it together.

We created a social media page where we would upload videos from the classroom, and not only would our sponsors comment and feel connected but so did their friends and family. The night of the performance, it wasn’t just the 25 of us going to the show, our whole community was in our hearts and there with us, waiting to hear and experience the event through the eyes of the children. It was pure magic.

The magic was even there for the audience around us… the community of theatre-goers that had never seen or heard of us before. Why? The energy the kids brought that night was so palpable, that it couldn’t help but be noticed and shared. It impacted everyone there in so many ways.

That magic didn’t stop the night of the show. Those penpals? They continued even after the show, talking about school and life. No one wanted it to end. Connections and memories had been made, empowering one sponsor to even reach out and come meet her student in person on the last day of school. Seeing that happen is something I will never forget.  

Dream Big

This partnership continued for many years, in whatever grade level I was teaching. Each year the show was different, each set of students was different. Sponsors often returned for a new student the following year, or new sponsors came on board. It always created beautiful memories, and those powerful connections carried over into all academic areas. Students were motivated to share their experiences and to learn as much as they could in order to do so. The partnership and experience began to branch out to my teammates, and then to my building.

I had often dreamed of this on a larger scale and could visualize it happening. S0 I approached my Superintendent, an innovative risk-taker herself who had seen what was happening in my classroom. I asked her to take a leap of faith and consider bringing the partnership to the whole district. She did, and the results have been astounding. In just three years, 60% of our entire student body, in a high poverty district, has attended at least one Broadway show after implementing its themes into our curriculum, and the partnership has been recognized on a national level by the National School Board Association.

Power of Community Outreach

What has happened as a result of this partnership can best be summed up in one word – community. It has united our school community – parents, teachers, and students sharing in a common experience that excites and motivates them. It has taken our students outside the walls of the school community into experiences in our larger community within the city. And It has inspired our larger community as they experience the pure joy of these students and are so impacted by it, we have complete strangers calling our administration to share how much they were impacted by our kids. It has inspired energy, love, and excitement. It is a testament to the power of community partnership, connection, and the arts. When they work together, anything is possible.

Read more about the impact of this program.  

Further reading to create your own community partnerships and ideas for funding projects:

A How-to Guide

Resources for Building Community Partnerships

Funding Arts Integration

About the Author

Holly Valentine is currently an Arts Integration Teacher in the Gates Chili Central School District, a suburb of Rochester, NY where she has been for 20 years. She is a certified Arts Integration Specialist and has served as an Arts Standards Writer for the New York State Education Department. She was a 2014 recipient of NYC Broadway League's Apple Award for her work in Arts Education. Holly also serves as the Director of Education for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League, where she has created nationally recognized programs and develops standards-based curriculum for touring Broadway shows in order to bring the theatre to classrooms and classrooms to the theatre.