When Terri Steinmann started coming to to teach drama five years ago, most of her young students had never seen a play.
What's more, the kids didn't know the difference between a play and a movie.
A half decade later, students are clamoring to be in Steinmann's theater class. They pop into the arts room at lunch to see if it's their turn for drama class. Kids who used to be shy compete for the lead roles.
"Now they beg to do a play," said Steinmann, who operates West End Studio Theatre in Santa Cruz.
The drama class is one facet of Amesti's arts program, a unique and well-rounded education in visual arts, music, dance and theater rarely found in today's California public schools.
A decade ago, the school received a donation from world-renowned artist Leroy Neiman, through the Good Tidings Foundation, to construct an arts building at the school. The Leroy Neiman Art Center has played host to many local professional artists-in-residence through the Santa Cruz Cultural Council’s SPECTRA program, including Steinmann.
Amesti has maintained the arts program despite year-after-year of budget cuts, thanks to fundraising efforts, generous gifts from the community and teacher buy-in.
"It's been rough to keep funding over the years," said Amesti Academic Coordinator Elaine Parker.
Parker, also the school vice principal and mother of two Amesti students, has spearheaded the planning and fundraising of the arts program since its inception.
"This exists at the level it does because of tireless effort," Steinmann said. "They don't give up."
Teachers volunteer the students for the arts programs, and select the genre of art the class will participate in. Anne Childers, who teaches a fourth and fifth grade class, chose drama for her students this year. She said it helps them focus and work as a team, skills that translate well into daily life but aren't always taught in traditional classroom settings.
"We're really limited these days in terms of opportunities for kids," Childers said. "It gives them a chance to feel successful at something other than reading or math."
The kids doesn't see those bigger life lessons. Rather, they enjoy the challenge of learning their lines and sheer fun of acting.
Mayra Andrade has the lead in the upcoming drama production, her first starring role. She said she's been practicing extra hard—three times a week—to prepare.
Jake Parker, who plays the humbug in the same play, said he likes theater. Now in Childers' class, he's been participating in drama since first grade.
"I can tell you personally, hands-on, he begs for Terri," Parker said of her son. "He just loves it."
Parker's younger son is in the folklórico dance program at the school. Another school arts offering involves visual arts. It was completely funded by the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz for three classes to take part in a 6-8 week program.
The arts programs, specifically drama, build confidence in kids who are learning English or have speech problems, Parker said. The program also helps with shyness, public speaking and motivates students to attend school.
"We, of course, think it has a huge impact on our test scores," Parker said.
However, the arts program is not limited to what happens inside the cavernous Leroy Neiman Art Center. Steinmann will welcome all Amesti students to her theater this spring to watch “Pinocchio and Carlo Collodi." After, students will tour the Museum of Art and History.
On Thursday evening the Leroy Neiman Art Center will be open for Amesti staff, administration, students and the community to come together to celebrate , an evening dedicated to a decade of success in arts education. The event is at the school, 25 Amesti Rd. in Watsonville, and free to attend.