Westminster High School's drama program finds itself in the limelight, part of a national effort measuring how being involved in theater affects students.
The Denver Center for the Performing Arts is one of three organizations in the county selected by the national Theatre Forward group to be part of a pilot program testing how theater arts influence academic careers.
“It's one of those debates: qualitative data versus quantitative,” said Andre Rodriguez, Westminster High School theater teacher. “So in math and science classes it's easy to track growth. But in something that's subjective like the arts — you know, where we learn all sorts of social and emotional skills and more … things that are hard to quantify like collaboration, being an inventor, being a problem solver. That's really what the experiment is — having a solid body of evidence that … in some ways quantifies the qualitative.”
About 300 students are involved in theater in any given semester, from classes to extracurriculars like a producing a show.
Rodriguez said he sees the strong tie between academic success and theater.
“Every year we have students who audition for colleges and they get big offers from top universities in the region,” he said.
WHS is regularly a finalist and winner in many categories at the the Bobby G Awards, a Tony Awards-style event hosted by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts to recognize schools in the region.
“Each year we've done really well,” Rodriguez said.
Most recently, WHS won the Outstanding Achievement in Scenic Design category in 2016; Lighting Design, Scenic Design and Direction categories in 2015; Costume Design and Rising Star categories in 2014; and Hair and Makeup Design, Lighting Design and Scenic Design categories in 2013.
That standard of excellence and good working relationship with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts prompted the center to select Westminster for the study.
“I've longed believed — as a theater educator — that there are certain truths that theater provides that are known as 'portable skills,' “ said Patrick Elkins-Zeglarski, education curriculum manager at the center. “So this idea of collaboration, critical thinking, multiple/diverse perspective awareness — those are all branches of social and emotional intelligence.”
The study will provide insight to see if those ideas are fact, he said.
Some students at WHS find it true.
“I think it helps allow — at least for me — you to see things more in depth and, like, subtextually … more like reading-through-the-lines type of thinking,” said Jeff Smith, a WHS senior.
Smith, who has been involved in every theater production since his sophomore year, said that reading between the lines of a script to understand a character and the character's motivation helps spur critical thinking.
The school produces two big shows each school year in addition to some minor performances like a dinner theater and improv events, Rodriguez said.
“I think art really shapes a person and shapes their character and it makes them more focused in school,” Kendrick Trujillo, a WHS senior, said. “When they're super-passionate about something … they naturally want to do better in school.”
He said it also creates self-awareness.
“I feel like it encourages you to be your true self and really put yourself out there,” Trujillo explained. “For example, with theater, you always have to play these imaginary characters and you kind give yourself to go there. And your true self comes out and helps you at the same time learn about yourself and what your strengths and weaknesses are, and then you apply that to your academic career.”
Rodriguez said he hopes the study will showcase that.
“Hopefully, it will be something that administrators across the country and theater teachers across the country can use to advocate for the use of arts in education,” Rodriguez said.
Elkins-Zeglarski said the study will initially focus mostly on attendance rates and retention, though Theatre Forward may delve deeper into academic performance.