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Geffen Playhouse Literacy Project Celebrated at Mendez High School

Photo by Gil Cates Jr.

The large multipurpose room of Mendez High School, where the entire 10th grade has gathered to enjoy a lunch of pizza, is abuzz with excited conversation. Since the students are days away from their summer break, it’s easy to imagine they are already anticipating freedom.

Yet as Jennifer Zakkai, Geffen Playhouse’s Director of Education and Community Engagement, begins to speak, they push aside their plates and listen intently. Cheers and polite applause erupt only when appropriate. No wonder they’re so attentive. The lunch today celebrates their completion of the Geffen Playhouse Literacy Project, which helped a significant number of them pass the test required to receive a high school diploma.

Mauro Bautista, Mendez High School’s principal, proudly takes the microphone. “Mendez went from 70% to 78% in our first-time passing rate this year,” he says, beaming. “That’s the sixth highest increase in the District! Out of 100 high schools!”

According to Bautista and his fellow administrators, the writing portion of the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) is the hardest for their students. Since passing the CAHSEE can be a deciding factor in whether or not students drop out of high school, the Geffen Playhouse partnered with UCLA Center X to create the Literacy Project and help students succeed. Using the Geffen’s season of plays as a launchpad, Geffen teaching artists and UCLA literacy coaches help develop and hone the sophomores’ critical thinking and writing skills.

Working with teaching artists, the students deepen their knowledge of theater, familiarize themselves with the topics and themes of the plays and sharpen their own speaking skills. After viewing a student matinee, they write essays and get individualized feedback from the coaches and their English teachers. In 2012, the first year of the program, the percentage of Mendez students who passed the CAHSEE on their first try leapt by 11%. This year, Bautista estimates the percentage of students who did not just pass but were scored proficient in the English Language Arts portion of the test jumped from 38% to over 50%.

But numbers don’t mean much if the students aren’t expanding their worldview and growing as critical thinkers. So, are they?

“In the beginning of the year, I disliked writing a lot,” one student writes. “The plays and learning how to write through them have opened my eyes to a whole new perspective.”

Development & Education Programs Coordinator Kristen Smith Eshaya prepares the program graduation certificates
Development & Education Programs Coordinator Kristen Smith Eshaya prepares the program graduation certificates.

Separating from the group into little clusters, the students begin evaluating the work they’ve completed over the year. What was your best essay? Worst? Why? the small group coaches prod. One girl raises her hand and explains that her strongest piece resulted from her caring about the issue. Then she names her least favorite. “I rushed it,” she explains. “I read back over it and my ideas just didn’t make sense.”

Her coach smiles. In a world of 140-character attention spans, the student’s thoughtfulness is something to celebrate.

See you next year!

Geffen Playhouse News

A not-for-profit organization dedicated to enriching the cultural life of Los Angeles through plays and educational programs that inform, entertain and inspire. www.geffenplayhouse.org

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