If you were a part of a theater production or performance at The Howard School, know someone who was, or attended such an event, the Times Free Press would love to hear from you. Please contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at 423-757-6592 or email@example.com.
SCHOOLS WITH THEATER PROGRAMS
In a blue sport jacket and a pair of shorts, John Lennon paces around stacks of dusty chairs, clusters of desks and piles of bricks backstage at the Howard School. He is looking for a lighting box or a control panel for the overheard lights in the school's 1,000-plus-seat auditorium.
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"Look at this place," he spreads his arms wide. "I've never had a theater this big."
Lennon, husband of Hamilton County school board member Kathy Lennon, is the former theater teacher and director at Signal Mountain Middle/High School. Now, he is coming down off the mountain to restart a full-scale theater program at Howard.
If you ask Lennon why, his voice will rise slightly and the former wrestler will straighten up and look you right in the eye as he tells you, "Because the theater needs these kids."
"So many people say these kids need theater the theater needs these kids, the theater needs their voices. It deserves them," Lennon said.
When test scores and grades become the focus for school officials, students sometimes begin to lose opportunities. Specialty electives, advanced courses and art classes already are scarce in many of Hamilton County's lowest-performing schools — and theater is one of those.
In fact, only 14 of the 79 public schools in the county have a theater teacher — and five of those teachers share the role with another subject, such as chorus or English.
This fall, for the first time in at least two decades, one of those teachers will be at the Howard School.
But Lennon and the school have work ahead of them. He predicts a full production won't be seen on the school auditorium stage for about two years because of the dilapidated condition of the space that once featured riveting dramas, graduations, dance and choir performances and even a fashion show in the 1960s.
Boarded-up ticket boxes and concession stands, antiquated equipment and lighting systems, ripped curtains and floors that are caving in, even a damaged antique organ, all pose challenges for Lennon.
According to Times Free Press archives, $13.1 million was budgeted in 2012 for renovations to the school, including improvements to the auditorium's heating and cooling systems, but it is unclear if that work was completed. As recently as 2012, the Times Free Press reported that former school board member Donna Horn noted standing water in the auditorium while she was attending a school event.
School officials predict it will cost about $250,000 to renovate and refurbish the space — money that is not in the school system's budget.
The district has budgeted only for Lennon's salary, and it is seeking private funds and donations for renovations to the theater and other costs of the program.
But district leaders say they are committed to restarting a thriving program at Howard.
"Putting kids on a stage and in performance roles is a life-changing opportunity for so many kids," said Jill Levine, director of the Opportunity Zone. "When we created the Opportunity Zone, it wasn't just about increasing reading scores, but about giving these students as many opportunities as possible There has to be something for everyone. I promise you, it's going to change lives."
Last fall, the district launched the Opportunity Zone in response to pressure from the state to improve student performance at 12 county schools — five of which are part of a special partnership of shared control with the state.
In May, Opportunity Zone teachers and administrators organized an art showcase that featured student artwork and performances at East Lake Academy.
Along with an emphasis on opportunities and services for students at the 12 Opportunity Zone schools, Superintendent Bryan Johnson has advocated for more arts opportunities in all of the district schools. His proposed 2018-2019 budget features an increase of seven more related arts teachers.
Next year the district's 14 theater teachers will join the ranks of athletics coaches, band and choir teachers who receive a supplemental stipend in addition to their salaries, according to the district's related arts lead teacher Clarie Stockman.
"'It's not right that students at one public school do not have the same opportunities as those at other public schools," Lennon said.
He comes to Howard after almost a decade at Signal Mountain, where he taught four theater classes and helped coordinate three student-led performances each year. Before starting Signal's theater program, Lennon taught all grade levels, coached wrestling and directed theater at Notre Dame High School.
At Howard, Lennon most likely will start with Theater 1 and 2 classes, so students can build the foundational skill sets needed for advanced theater classes.
Stockman noted that theater isn't just about acting on a stage, but providing a wide range of learning opportunities for students.
"We're talking about technology, using materials, costume making, set making, working with literary elements, lighting, technology production, physical fitness it's all integrated," Stockman said. "Art is for all. It's about all of us, it's about building community, it's about building unity, everyone deserves the arts."
In 2017, educators and supporters asked Chattanooga business leaders to put pressure on the county commission for more funding for art programs, citing research that shows art and music programs help engage students in school, boosting performance and attendance.
Lennon also plans on taking his students, some who might have never experienced a theater class or participated in a production before, to competitions in the fall to see what other schools are able to accomplish.
"As soon as they experience it, they are going to fall in love with theater," Lennon said. "There's a place for every kid."
Joe Banks, a behavioral specialist at Howard, works with many of the kids who have a hard time finding their place at school. He said restarting the theater program "is necessary."
"Most of these kids need to express themselves and their individual talent," he said. "That allows them to be comfortable with themselves."
Banks was a graduate of the school himself in 2003, and Howard did not have a theater program when he attended. Most of the theater program's history has been lost to time and memory — district and school officials have a hard time noting when the last play was performed or the last theater class taught at Howard.
Lennon hopes to track down that history and build relationships with the community.
"I want to keep the heart and tradition of this space," he said.
"Imagine what has happened on these boards," Lennon said as he tapped the wooden stage with his foot. He turned to face the house, arms spread wide. "Imagine this place full."