NBC's 'SMASH' MAKE A MUSICAL, School #4: Place Bridge Academy, Denver

NBC's 'SMASH' MAKE A MUSICAL, School #4: Place Bridge Academy, Denver

School #4: Place Bridge Academy

Denver, Colorado

REPORTED BY: Timothy Allen McDonald, Founder and CEO iTheatrics

January 25, 2012

In scouting for Denver schools for the NBC’s ‘SMASH’ MAKE A MUSICAL program, in which we are building musical theater programs in underserved schools nationwide, we contacted our local Denver project advisor, Gillian McNally. Gillian is a professor at the University of Northern Colorado, and a leader in the field of theater education. Gillian connected us with one of her grad students, Mindy Loughhead, who happened to be teaching at Place Bridge Academy.   Mindy was the very first person in the country to submit an application for NBC’s ‘SMASH’ MAKE A MUSICAL, and the application she submitted was truly remarkable.

Place Bridge Academy serves a primarily refugee population.  The children who attend the school represent 50 different counties and speak 30 different languages. They are at this school because they have been displaced from their homelands by war, famine, terrorism and other atrocities.

The school exists because of the vision and determination of its principal, Brenda Kazin. Prior to forming the school, refugee children in Denver were scattered among various schools in the region.  It was Ms. Kazin who endeavored to have these children attend one central school, a magnet school, where these children’s unique needs could be addressed in a location they could call home.

Ms. Kazin and her impressive team of administrators and teachers realized they could not properly meet the needs of their students if the basic needs of the children’s parents were not also addressed.  So Place Bridge Academy arranged for on-site medical clinics, job fairs and welcome centers. In fact, as we left the school today, children and their parents were lined up at a portable medical clinic provided by the Ronald McDonald House.

The proof of any school’s achievement isn’t just in test scores, but rather in the students themselves.  I’ve been on hundreds of school campuses and can usually determine the quality of the education by the way the students behave and interact (among many other school attributes). Right away, I could tell Place Bridge was on the right track when I heard their intercom announcement. It included the pledge of allegiance recited in dialects that could only be recreated on Ellis Island at the turn of the last century.

These children have big challenges to overcome, as do their teachers and parents.  With English as their second, third or fourth language, the children have a difficult time speaking clearly or in some cases, due to post traumatic stress, speaking at all. Without the confidence of language, they avoid eye contact.  Additionally, some children come from cultures where it’s not okay to take focus, or to take a positive risk, like singing a solo line. Communicating with parents isn’t a simple phone call home.  Most often it requires a translator.

Bearing witness to the extraordinary achievements these young people accomplished in just 90 minutes of musical theater educational activities was akin to seeing a miracle.  Children, who at the beginning of our workshop would not speak out loud, or look anyone in the eye, were dancing and singing with focused abandon.

In one of my conversations with the students a young lady said to me, “Mr. Tim last Monday we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. You know, I think if Martin Luther had a school, it would be just like ours.”

Martin Luther King Jr. would be very proud to see this rainbow coalition of race, religion, size, shape and experiences, whose native languages may outnumber ancient Babylon’s. And who, despite devastating hardship including the loss of home and country, are working together to achieve their American dream.

To experience Place Bridge Academy is to witness the promise of America in action. The positive impact the school is making on the students, their parents, and the community at large, is a direct result of excellent leadership. These empowered teachers, with their vision and skill, along with a community working together, will achieve impact that one person could not achieve alone. Place Bridge Academy is an example of the power of collaboration. That same type of collaboration is at the core of every musical, whether it’s the creation of a new musical like Marilyn on ‘SMASH’, or Into the Woods JR. performed by middle school students from 50 different countries speaking 30 different languages.

As we left the school, I felt overcome with emotion and separation anxiety.  I want everyone to know these kids and to know this school. Thanks to local NBC 9 News entertainment reporter Kirk Montgomery, I think all of Denver is going to experience the elation my team and I felt. Kirk has committed to updating Denver with regular on air progress reports as they work towards producing and performing their very first musical.  A story this compelling deserves national attention.  So please, help us spread the word: the American dream has taken root in the hearts and minds of the children at Place Bridge Academy in Denver, Colorado and these young people remind us all of the power of musical theater and the promise of America.