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No drama zone: Parents, principals express concern over lack of theatre program at middle, high schools

For the first time in 17 years, Columbia High School and Henkle Middle School will be without a drama program after the resignation of the schools’ theatre teacher last year.

At the Sept. 26 meeting of the White Salmon Valley School Board, several parents spoke during the comment portion of the meeting and principals from both schools said finding someone to fill the position is of high priority.

According to Dr. Jerry Lewis, superintendent of White Salmon Valley Schools, Jennifer Graves taught both English language arts at Henkle Middle and drama at the middle school and high school. Her biography on the Henkle Middle School website says she began teaching at Henkle in 1995.

Last year, she said she would no longer teach drama and soon after left the district for a position as a reading specialist at Hood River Middle School, according to Lewis. A job description was posted at the end of last year, but no qualified applicants put their name in for the drama position.

Mike Church, principal at Henkle, said when he came on in late summer finding someone to fill the empty eighth-grade language arts position was of high priority, but that he would like to see a drama teacher back in the mix by next year.

“One of the main things that need to be done with the schedule was replace my eighth-grade language arts teacher who had moved across the river, so quite bluntly, that was my focus, making sure we got a quality person in language arts, and we did,” Church said. “I’m very pleased with our hire.”

But the parents that spoke at Thursday’s meeting said that having a drama program in middle and high school can serve more than just an academic purpose. Pamela Springer, a parent of a Columbia High School graduate, could not be at the meeting, but instead wrote a letter to the board that Lewis read aloud.

“Mostly I believe that having a circle of drama friends, especially through the difficult middle and high school years fosters a feeling of belonging, engagement, and acceptance as well as the excitement of sharing a similar passion within her community of student actors,” Springer wrote.

Anne McDonald, president of the Henkle Middle School Parent Teacher Organization and a teacher at Hood River Middle, handed out a study reflecting how providing less fortunate students with theatre class can impact them in other areas.

“This study came out in 2009 and it’s called ‘Teaching with Poverty in Mind,’ and it shows that low SES students performed much better on SAT tests if they have drama,” McDonald said.

Others just worried about the drama program simply falling through the cracks.

“It was one of those things where for certain kids, that’s the reason they were here and excited to be at high school,” said Peggy Neuman during the comment portion of the meeting. “It would be really easy where we are right now for it to slip away and be gone for a really long time, but if it’s important to the district and to the board and if it’s a priority you can bring it back.”

Troy Whittle, principal at Columbia High School, and Church said they have been collaborating on how to best fill the position so the drama program could return by next school year.

The only problem is that Graves spent part of her day teaching language arts and the rest teaching drama. Finding a replacement who will only teach one period of drama at the middle school, one period at the high school, and one period of drama tech, which would include set design and production, might be tricky.

“I believe we can easily put a period of drama into our seventh- and eighth-grade program next year, but again, it would be one period, so how that person has a job through the rest of the day is a problem not just for me, but for all of us,” Church said.

Whittle said the option of hiring on someone who is not “highly qualified” for a drama position is always a possibility since neither the middle nor high school is designated as a Title I school. Board member David Karlson brought up the idea of sharing a drama teacher between districts.

“I would love to see a drama program back here. I am a strong advocate of a healthy fine arts program in our district,” Whittle said. “You could put out for a part-time drama teacher and see what you get, but you’re limiting your hiring pool significantly by searching for a part-time position in an area that is as expensive to live in as the Gorge.”

He added that even if there was someone on his staff who wanted to teach the high school drama class currently, all of his teachers are swamped with working through new graduation requirements set to take place next year.

The board instructed Whittle and Church to continue working on whether or not sharing a drama teacher with other districts and what the next drama program should look like. Lewis said in terms of funding, much will depend on enrollment in the coming year.

“We’ll see how the trend goes for this year. If we hold on to our enrollment numbers it gives us more flexibility. Some years we start out strong, but we could lose 20, 30 kids by the end of the year. It hasn’t held true for the last couple of years but there’s no crystal ball on that,” Lewis said.


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