FORT LAUDERDALE — Are you more cultured than a fifth grader? If you’re comparing yourself to Broward School District students, probably not.
The Student Enrichment in the Arts (SEAS) program has made going to the theater a common occurrence in the lives of the county’s very diverse public school students.
For 19 years, some of the most underserved students have stepped out on the town – via school bus – to see The Nutcracker, learn the finer points of Flamenco and African dancing, and watch plays and musicals – for free.
The opportunities are the product of a $2 million endowment and 40-year agreement between the Broward School Board and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
The SEAS program has served more than two million Broward School students since its inception in 1991, said Broward Center Director of Education Sharon Brooks.
“The Amaturo Theater was declared an outside resource classroom every day from 9 to 3 p.m.,” Brooks said. “That’s the beauty of what is happening here. These students start coming as soon as they are in kindergarten. And they come every year.”
Broward school students as young as three years old view and participate in fine arts productions as an extension of traditional learning. Metropolitan cultural centers have always been key in offering school children a well-rounded view of arts education. But as budgetary chopping blocks continue to whittle away at fine arts’ presence in public education, programs like SEAS are unique, said Brooks.
“Many arts education programs offer performances at a nominal cost, but ours are entirely free,” Brooks said.
During the current school year, students learned about jazz and the Harlem Renaissance, watched Japanese Taiko drummers, and watched a play about Anne Frank, to name a few events.
“The SEAS program helps our students see the purpose of things,” said Kathy Sedlack, principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary in Fort Lauderdale, a Title One school that is about 99 percent black – Caribbean and African-American. Schools receive Title One status if 50 percent or more of their students receive free or reduced lunch.
“In many cases, children will do better academically if you integrate the arts,” Sedlack said. “It gives a purpose to their learning. They think, ‘There’s a reason why I’m learning this,’ whether they’re telling a story or learning about a character.”
In April, the program reached a milestone.
That’s when the Broward Center rolled out the red carpet for Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary fourth-grader Charnita Florvilus, who was the two-millionth student to attend an educational performance at the center as part of the SEAS program.
“She was quite stunned,” Sedlack said. “They had a band and balloons.”
The program touches almost every Broward school student. The Reading Readiness program serves seven of the county’s 60 Head Start facilities.
Brooks said expansion of the Reading Readiness program depends upon funding. And a program with a similar name – Reading Residency – serves about 20,000 second and fourth graders at Title One schools. This year, students in the Reading Residency program saw productions of Stone Soup and Charlotte’s Web. The Broward Center’s education department offered corresponding lesson plans to participating teachers.
The SEAS program, which enables more than 100,000 Broward County public school students to be admitted each year free of charge to performances at the Broward Center, is not only a boon for South Florida’s educators, but is also an investment, Brooks said.
“We really have begun a process of creating a new generation who certainly know what the theater is and they have the desire to come back,” said Brooks. “It is such a visual way of making educational concepts come alive.”
The Broward Center currently is putting together its 2008/2009 SEAS calendar, which will be available to all Broward County schools on a first come, first served basis. Teachers in the country’s sixth-largest district are encouraged to apply early for the free educational program, which is sure to be “top of the line,” Brooks said.
Tradewinds Elementary fourth-grade teacher Luis Rivera said he has already made preparations to apply for as many performances as he can for his students. Rivera said his fourth-graders have come to expect the performances.
“We were actually the envy of the grades,” Rivera said. “It’s entertaining and they don’t realize they’re still learning.”
Photo: Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary fourth-grader Charnita Florvilus, center, celebrates her status as the two-millionth student to attend a Student Enrichment in the Arts performance. Standing with her are Kelly Armstead, left, the Broward Center for the Performing Arts’ education coordinator, and Sharon Brooks, right, the center’s director of education.