WILDWOOD - Two actors stood in front of 15 mostly fourth- and fifth-graders at Wildwood Elementary School on a Tuesday after school last month. They posed a question that the children probably never thought about before - What makes a story interesting?

The actors, Sally Bingham and Rudy Caporaso, told the students it is interesting when there is a problem or conflict to overcome. Then, the actors put them to work.

Bingham and Caporaso, both of the East Lynne Theater Co. of Cape May, had the 9- and 10-year-olds engage in an improvisation exercise where one student started a story and the next student standing in line had to listen and make up his or her own contribution to move the story forward.

Besides eating pizza, "The Mystery Pizza" story had characters using parallel universes to teleport from place to place and meeting the Jersey Devil.

Michael Ashton, 11, of Wildwood, has been in the after-school program for the past three years. Michael is shy, but he involved himself in one of the theater productions by holding up props. The program isn't only about acting. The students learn about music among other things.

Michael's mother, Vernice Ashton, 43, was surprised by her son's percussion abilities when she attended a school concert.

"It's a great program, and I just hope it stays for a long time," Ashton said.

A community effort

During the past five years, school districts in New Jersey have been learning to live with less state aid. In southern New Jersey, districts handle the cuts in different ways. Some make reductions in their arts programs, others don't.

Whether or not individual school districts choose to cut their arts offerings, local community arts groups are ready to step in to try to add to students' educational experiences.

Josepha Penrose, supervisor of curriculum and instruction for Wildwood Public Schools, secured a five-year grant for the five-day-per-week after-school program. The money pays for groups, such as the East Lynne Theater Co., and district teachers and personnel to work with students after school to enhance what is taught durVIDEOing the school day.

"With theater, it helps some people be more comfortable in a social environment," Penrose said.

Gayle Stahlhuth, the East Lynne Theater Co. artistic director, said she has been involved with artist-in-residence workshops since the 1980s. If any theater company wants to have a future audience and a future, it has to be involved in some type of student outreach, Stahlhuth said.

"It's never my goal to make people ready for Broadway. We are giving the student a chance to appreciate what a wonderful art form theater is," Stahlhuth said.

Playing in the bands

Sylvia Ludwick, 14, a freshman at the Atlantic County Institute of Technology in Mays Landing, could be home Monday evenings watching reruns of "Modern Family" or "The Big Bang Theory." Instead, she spends her time rehearsing with the Hamilton Township Community Band at the George L. Hess Educational Complex in Mays Landing.

Ludwick also plays flute in the Atlantic County Institute of Technology band.

"I have always liked playing my instrument. I wanted another place to play my instrument," said Ludwick, a Mays Landing resident who also was in the community band last year when she attended William Davies Middle School. "It's more challenging music. I'm surrounded by people who know what they are doing, like Fred Rushmore. He knows how to run a band. He runs it very well. A lot of people in the band are professional, and I learn a lot."

Rushmore, the band director who founded the group in January 2003, told the ensemble it sounded very good and thanked the musicians for their time. Besides ACIT, the band includes students from Oakcrest and Cedar Creek high schools, but the ensemble used to be one-half students, Rushmore said.

In the past, half of the clarinet players, three trumpeters, nine flute players and eight percussionists were all students. The band has never had an adult percussionist.

"I think a lot of times, there are strengths in both," said Rushmore about students playing with adult musicians. "The adults have the strength of knowledge, and they have the strength of experience. Their depth of knowledge and experience will be far past what a younger player has, but every once in a while, you get a younger student - many times who has studied privately - and their technical proficiency adds another elevating factor."

A must-see experience

Students in the Ocean City School District receive an appreciation of music outside of the classroom in another way.

Second-graders have been attending special Bay-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra performances at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Galloway Township. The Young People's Concerts will be held again May 1 at Cumberland County College in Vineland and May 5 at Stockton.

"We are a primary school. To see an orchestra and to see the level of talent that they are providing for our students is nothing that the school could provide," Principal Kathleen Smith said.

Since 1999, the Bridgeton-based orchestra has played full symphonic concerts in Vineland and Galloway, which last about an hour and cater to elementary school-aged children, said Jed Gaylin, Bay-Atlantic's music director.

"Some places will send a trio or a quartet, and that's very nice, but when you see the kids walk into the hall and see a 45-, 50-piece orchestra in front of them, it's sensory exciting to them. Some of them have never been in a hall that large, so they get a real concert feel to it. We felt it was important," said Paul Herron, the symphony's executive director. "It's always a holiday when you have that many kids at a performance. One thing I was surprised at was the level of excitement and exuberance that young people have toward classical music."

Giving the arts a hand

The Somers Point Jazz Society made a donation to the district, Smith said. The Ocean City Theater Company will do a one-week program for third- and second-graders next month and in February, respectively. The group also will work with the fourth- and fifth-graders later in the academic year.

The Somers Point Jazz Society has donated more than $30,000 to help local public schools' music and arts programs during the past 10 years.

Sydney Somers, director of communication, education and recreation for Somers Point Public Schools, said the jazz society gives at least $1,000 annually. The money funds arts projects such as the band and chorus trip to Hershey Park, Pennsylvania, and a school musical during the summer.

"We do assembly programs free of charge in the public schools. It's a way for us to bring jazz to a younger audience," said Nick Regine, president of the Somers Point Jazz Society.

The Vineland Regional Dance Company usually makes it into at least two of Vineland's public elementary schools between September and November, said Kim Chapman, the dance company's artistic director. Elementary school-aged children are not judgmental yet on ballet, Chapman said.

"It's just a true undying belief that the arts can make kids better people," Chapman said.

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