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Decade of dedication

Mar 08, 2018 03:54PM ● Published by Jet Burnham

Southland Elementary rotates through three educational musicals. (Jennifer Preece/Southland Elementary)

Ten years ago, Mary Jackson, a parent of students attending Southland Elementary, asked the Parent Teacher Organization if it would support a school musical. She had participated in a musical production in fifth grade and remembered how great the experience was. They said yes, if she was willing to head it up.

“Mary, having no musical background or experience, took on the challenge so that other students could have the same experience she had,” said Sharon Kartchner, a parent volunteer (with teaching and musical experience) who volunteered to help Jackson.

That first production was so well-received that Kartchner and Jackson have continued the tradition. They have been supported by other dedicated parent volunteers over the last 10 years, including Jennifer Preece, Suzie Cocanour, Cindy Robertson, Ali Maynes, Amy Colbert and Vanessa Burton.

“Directing the musicals at Southland has been such a rewarding experience,” said Kartchner. “All of us who help do so on a volunteer basis, give up hundreds of hours to make these musicals a success. It is stressful, it is demanding, it is time-consuming, but it is so worth it to see the smiles on the faces of the students as they finish performing for their family and friends.”

Even when her girls moved on from elementary school, Kartchner felt the pull to stay and direct more productions. Other volunteers felt the same way.

“Each year, there has been one of us that doesn’t have one of our own kids in it—but we still do this craziness,” said Jackson. “It is so fun.”

 The first year’s production had a cast of more than 100 students in grades four through six.

“It was a learning process—a little clunky, with multiple scene changes and not enough microphones,” said Kartchner. Over the years, Kartchner has insisted the plays be as professional as possible. The final performances are held at Oquirrh Hills Middle School for access to stage with space for set pieces and risers, professional lighting and adequate seating for the audience. Kartchner is involved in every part of the production from the coaching of line delivery, choreography, stage blocking and lighting cues to set design and music arrangements—all to ensure a high-quality show.

“This is a musical production—not just a cheesy elementary play,” said Kartchner. She said some of the students have gone on to perform in leading roles in their middle school and high school plays. 

“For some of these students, drama is their way to shine,” she said. “Maybe they aren’t great at academics or sports, but they can excel on stage and they love it.”

The parent volunteers are in charge of the shows exclusively, receiving a healthy budget from the PTO, which believes the educational musicals play an important role at Southland Elementary.

Finding shows based in school curriculum was important to the parent volunteers. Kartchner said it is beneficial for students to learn about history by acting and singing about it. 

“These kids are learning, and they don’t even realize it,” said Jackson.

The first year’s production, in 2008, was “Use Your Imagination,” which taught kids about early inventors and how to learn from them to solve modern-day problems.

The next year, the volunteers brainstormed ideas for an original patriotic show. Preece wrote the script for “Quest for the Stars and Stripes,” starring the American Flag as the main character.

“The Adventures of Lewis and Clark: A Musical Journey Along the Oregon Trail” highlights the fourth-grade curriculum of westward movement. 

This year, students performed “Dig It! A Musical Tale of Ancient Civilizations.” The musical takes the audience from ancient Mesopotamia to Egypt to Rome to learn about leaders of the past.

The plays have been popular and successful each year, but Kartchner said they are a lot of work. To avoid burn-out, they decided to hold the musicals every other year. The team of volunteers had collected enough educational musicals to cover the curriculums of third through sixth grades. By rotating the shows every few years, students can be in two different musicals during their time at Southland.

Between 85 and 100 students from third through sixth grade participate in each production. Jillian Brady, a sixth-grader, said she had to miss some other after school activities for the twice-a-week practices leading up to the evening performances on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.

“It’s 100 percent worth it,” said Jillian. “We get to work together to create a fabulous play.”

Kartchner hopes the experience stays with the students.

“Maybe one of these students will remember doing a fun musical in elementary school, just like Mary did, and decide to direct one of their own someday,” she said.

Education, Today

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