School Board Celebrates NHS Unified Theater Program
The Newtown High School Unified Theater program was celebrated at the Board of Education’s September 4 meeting.
NHS educators Alysia Caffrey and Janice Gabriel oversee the class, which has, as Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue explained, regular education and special education students work together on an entirely student-run production.
Dr Rodrigue said she was the principal at the high school when the program began, and the program aligns with the district’s goal of supporting social and emotional learning. She shared that the program’s mission is to foster inclusion and develop student leaders through the arts.
“Over the last few years, we have watched students change their choice in careers after working with their peers in this venue,” said Dr Rodrigue. “It is a place where everyone is given a voice and an opportunity to shine.”
Ms Gabriel and students spoke at the board meeting. Ms Caffrey attended the meeting later due to traffic. Ms Gabriel reflected that when she interviewed for her position at NHS, she expressed a desire to begin a program for special needs and regular education students.
“We went right to work, and we were very lucky to receive a grant from the state of Connecticut for $36,000 that was able to get us off the ground,” said Ms Gabriel.
Unified Theater, Ms Gabriel explained, is a national program. At NHS, it began as an afterschool program, and through the support of the grant, Ms Gabriel said the school was able to make it a class.
“Over the last five years, we’ve grown into more than I have ever hoped it could possibly be,” said Ms Gabriel, adding that so many students wanted to take it that the school changed it from a full-year course to a semester-long course to accommodate more students.
Over the last five years, Ms Gabriel said 95 students have “graced our stage,” and many students take it multiple times.
“So many kids take it over and over and over again because they gain so much from this class,” Ms Gabriel continued. “It is the happiest part of my day.”
Students in the program work together to write, direct, and act in an entirely student-driven play. For the class, students have worked together to solve problems, and according to Ms Gabriel, one way students work to include all of their peers is to use iPads to “voice” lines for some of the school’s non-verbal students.
“The smiles on their faces when they hear their lines come on, we often have to stop the show because they are laughing, we’re laughing, and the entire audience is laughing,” said Ms Gabriel.
“We call our shows perfectly imperfect,” Ms Gabriel continued. “They are never perfect, and that is absolutely okay. But what we gain is so much more than what we give.”
NHS students Caitlin Thompson, Miles Dievert, Jr, and Timothy Rogers also attended the meeting.
“You think you are teaching these students so much when you walk in, but they teach you so much more than you could ever imagine,” said Caitlin.
Miles said taking the Unified Theater class has been a great experience, especially working with Timothy.
“What these students do is really quite remarkable,” said Ms Gabriel, adding that the first show of the year is slated for January. “... It’s really the best show you will ever see. I promise you that.”
Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku echoed that statement, saying the Unified Theater productions are some of the board members’ favorite events to attend. She also thanked the class’s advisors for “all you do.”
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