MINT HILL – Before Leslie Cossor was hired to teach theater at Northeast Middle School, eighth-grade students say drama class left much to be desired.
“We were on the computer more than we were actually acting,” Richard Calderon said.
And the instructor wasn’t very “enthusiastic” about putting them into plays, according to Lyani Umanzor, who said class consisted of mostly warm-up activities and hardly any real learning.
Now, students in Cossor’s eighth-grade honors class are reading scripts, learning about stage setup and positioning and performing in more shows than any previous year.
“The energy has changed and Ms. Cossor has persuaded other people, other teachers, to help us out and now we’re not at a lower level than everyone else because before, other departments went on trips and we didn’t really do anything,” Umanzor said. “She treats us like we’re on Broadway, not like we’re students.”
Cossor said she and the other arts teachers – Sara Bradshaw (visual arts) and Rudy Hawley (instrumental music) – inherited basically defunct departments when they came to work at Northeast Middle. The music, art and theater programs didn’t do anything, there was high teacher turnover and students didn’t want to take the classes – Hawley had trouble getting students to willingly join the school’s chorus, and Cossor said a few students actually tried to escape out the window during one of her lessons.
To make matters worse, there seemed to be no push from the administration to light a fire and reignite these departments.
“We’re a Title I school, so there are students struggling with academics,” Bradshaw said. “It’s not that we were told we weren’t important, but the focus was on other things.”
“Now, there’s a change in the atmosphere,” she added.
Cossor said they have each worked hard to get students invested and excited about the arts by boosting the curriculum, creating honors and advanced classes, taking students out into the community to perform and make art and collaborating on projects and shows. Cossor even moved her classroom next to Bradshaw and Hawley to create an area of the school solely dedicated to the arts. She is in the process of transforming her space into a black-box theater.
Students and teacher volunteers recently painted the walls black and the plan is to install professional sound and light equipment and special flooring, thus making it a top-notch performance space.
“It’s a massive redo,” Cossor said.
Students will perform at least five shows this year at local elementary schools and nursing homes in the community, which is more than any previous year. The first performance, William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” took place last week at The Little Flower Retirement Home off Lawyers Road.
“That was my favorite so far, because it was kind of a comedy, so it was funny,” Sally Khamis said. “I played one of the fairies.”
The improvements Cossor has made to the theater department are affecting her students in other academic areas, with some claiming they enjoy school more now than they used to.
“When you’re acting, your pressure is off, when in other classes you have to work hard and remember all these things. Here, you get to put that pressure off,” said Oscar Herrera.
Charles Ingmire feels like he can be himself in Cossor’s class.
“Drama makes me love school so much more,” he said. “It’s the only reason I come to school.”
As for the future of the music department, Hawley has his own plans. He wants to focus on retaining the students who are interested in music so they stay involved through high school, and eventually create an outdoor performance area in the school’s breezeway.
“The acoustics are amazing in there,” he said.
Bradshaw, on the other hand, wants to establish an art club and teach graphic design skills. She would also like her students to create their own sketchbooks, learn how to self publish and repaint some of the murals inside the school.
Isabella Valdez said she sees the effort Bradshaw and the other teachers are putting into the arts programs, which are important to students now and in the future.
“Without that, there are less musicians, less artists, less photographers in the world and life would be boring,” she said.
Valdez recently moved from Florida, but said she could tell right away that the art program at Northeast Middle is better than her previous school. She said Bradshaw has been helping her improve her color schemes and painting skills, and she feels teachers at the school are constantly encouraging her to explore her passions.
“Anything you’re interested in, you can draw it, you can sing it and you can act it here,” Valdez said.