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(photo by Ashley Archibald)

EDGEMAR — At the far end of town where the Grickle-grass grows and the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows and no birds ever sing except old crows … was a cadre of volunteers teaching students through prose.

Ninety future John Adams and Lincoln middle school students performed a stirring rendition of Dr. Suess’ book “The Lorax,” an environmental allegory that touches on critical issues of sustainability and respecting resources.

The students weren’t there for summer camp, however.

Each was a participant in Jumpstart to Success, a program aimed at helping students make a successful transition from fifth to sixth grade by drilling on reading, writing, arithmetic and now for the second time, drama.

Unlike the programs that took place before the summer of 2010, recent Jumpstart curriculum has included projects and performances to shake students out of the rut of traditional classroom learning.

Before, kids would just spend that time in classrooms reinforcing skills that they needed for the coming sixth grade year.

“It wasn’t different enough,” said Rosa Seratore, a math and secondary support coordinator in education services at the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. “Kids struggle during the school year, so why give them more of the same?”

The curriculum from social studies through science had an emphasis on the environment. Students learned about the ancient Romans, and what technologies they used to conquer their environment in a less-destructive way, as well as the science of climate change.

For the stage project, teachers chose Dr. Seuss’ tale of a capitalist named the Once-ler who chops down all of the Truffula Trees to make knit garments called Thneeds, despite the warnings of the Lorax, an advocate for the ecosystem.

This year, the drama component got an important bump.

The school district worked with Edgemar Center for the Arts to help put on the “Lorax” performance, and also partnered with a group of masters students from Pepperdine University working on a research project called STAGES, which looks at potential benefits of arts education on at-risk student groups.

Pepperdine also helped pay for costumes and props for the production through fundraising and grants.

Eight researchers decided to look at how the drama component impacted academic achievement, social skills and psychological functioning, said Judy Ho, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine and also a member at Edgemar.

She saw it as a unique way to bring together the theater and university to impact the learning of local, school-age children and get the ball rolling on a study that built on previous research about the importance of arts in education.

“The role Pepperdine University is bringing to this program is finding a way to document how the program is actually working for these kids,” Ho said.

To do so, her research students conducted baseline interviews consisting of 450 questions with about a third of the students and their parents before they started classes in July, said Todd Brown, a masters candidate from Pepperdine who is participating in STAGES.

Although the program is brief, consisting of a few hours of rehearsal two days a week for three weeks before the performance, the group hypothesizes that there will be an impact on the students’ behavior and academics.

The researchers will then follow up with the same kids and parents three months after the summer program and seven months after to see if any improvements in behavior and academics stuck.

There are limitations to the study because of the short period of exposure, Ho acknowledged, but she hopes to follow up with a longer-term program and compare the results.

Over the long-term, Ho hopes that STAGES will give educators the tools to affect policy at the local level by proving that schools need arts to better educate children.

“We want to say look at the impact, the research backs it up,” she said.

In the short term, the goals are focused solely on the students who traipsed around the stage in colorful garments, speaking and singing about the importance of environmental awareness.

Parents have certainly seen changes in their kids.

“It was great,” said Vhalia Viviani, whose daughter Naomi performed. “I saw with my daughter, the program was able to help with her self esteem … she was able to express herself.”

Students also gave the performance aspect high marks.

Tao Seals, who will attend Lincoln Middle School in the fall, said she was shy about acting when she started taking the classes at the beginning of July.

“Yesterday and today, I was so excited,” Seals said. “When we did it, I was a little bit scared.”

The teachers, volunteers and researchers that helped make the program happen hope that whatever the data shows, the new middle schoolers will be better prepared for the academic and social challenges they’re about to face.

“We hope this will help them step into the new environment with a better sense of themselves,” Brown said.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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