When the historic Coronado Performing Arts Center re-opened in 2001 following an $18.5 million restoration made possible by tireless fundraising efforts of the Friends of the Coronado Foundation (FOC) – one person was missing.
Gordon Smith, who served as the FOC’s co-chairman alongside his wife Mary Ann Smith, died three weeks before the re-opening. When pondering ways to honor Gordy’s wish to make Rockford’s crown jewel accessible to the entire community, especially kids, his family decided the best way was to get kids into the theater and spark their imaginations by exposing them to professional, world-class performances.
The Reach for the Stars Project was born, and an endowment fund was established.
“Reach for the Stars was an idea I thought was appropriate to memorialize Gordy’s often-repeated words to me about the Coronado project: ‘It’s for the kids,’” says Mary Ann Smith, now president emerita of the FOC.
The main mission of the Reach for the Stars Project is to get every single fourth-grade student in the Rockford Public School system to one performance during each school year. Beth Howard, FOC’s current executive director, says education specialists recommended fourth-graders for several reasons.
“If you have to focus on one age group, it’s a great age. They’ll remember they were there, and it will have the greatest impact. And it’s before they’re ‘too cool for school,’ so it’s hitting a bit of a magic spot,” Howard says. “The number of Rockford Public Schools fourth-grade students works out to be almost precisely the number of seats we have at the Coronado.”
To date, in 18 consecutive years, more than 32,000 fourth-graders have attended free world-class touring performances at the Coronado.
“It’s evolved to be something that’s eagerly anticipated each year, especially by teachers and RPS 205, because it has gained an excellent reputation for quality and for delivering a big WOW factor to 10-year-olds,” Smith says.
“I frequently run into 20-somethings who can remember their special day and tell me, ‘I was there in fourth grade.’ They remember exactly what they saw,” Howard adds.
The foundation underwrites the costs of each performance and even pays for busses to transport students to the theater. Last November, students were treated to a free performance by the Alvin Ailey II Dance Company.
Howard receives hundreds of notes from students thanking them for the experience and describing what they loved most about the performance they saw.
Reach for the Stars has been such a success that the foundation has begun expanding to additional student projects, starting with the Coronado Classroom.
“For our Coronado Classroom project, we bring mostly third-graders, one classroom at a time, to the Coronado,” Howard explains. The 90-minute experience starts with a multi-disciplinary presentation and includes a tour and a question-and-answer session.
“We take them through and talk about the remarkable spaces. We can talk about the cloud machine and the stars – and the fact that we have constellations on the ceiling, and why they were set exactly as they are,” Howard says. “I tell them ‘Now you are a Coronado expert.’ They love it.” They want to know everything – and third-graders have really fun, interesting questions.”
She recalls one student asking why there were numbers on the seats, which led to a discussion about buying tickets to a show. Another child asked why there was a name on the seat arm.
“I’ll tell you, I just about fell over,” Howard says. “I said, ‘That’s because Mr. and Mrs. Whitehead knew you would want to be here today, so they helped to pay for this beautiful theater to be saved.’ And those kids just lit up. They couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘That’s how much your community cares for you.’ That’s a lesson in civil engagement brought to life.”
Reach for the Stars has been so successful that Howard plans to produce a short video about it, which she hopes to present at the upcoming National Historic Theatre Conference.
“I’ve never heard of anything quite like this in any other theater,” she says. “I’m networked with 440 theaters and have not heard of this scale of a student outreach program anywhere.” ❚