CLEARWATER — One night a year, the neighborhood around Skycrest Elementary School looks like a parking lot. Cars are everywhere.
On that night, every student at the school gets a chance to show off his or her academic prowess. Not through standardized test scores, but through plays, stories, poems, songs and art.
That was the case Thursday night as Skycrest's classrooms turned into stages. For a decade, the school has used the arts to spark enthusiasm in children and make learning more fun. This marriage of teaching academics using art has been so positive, Skycrest has become a model school for the program that makes it happen.
The PASSport program is a project of the Hoffman Performing Arts Institute, the educational arm of Ruth Eckerd Hall. It's based on the idea that students learn more readily when their imagination and creativity are nurtured.
Ruth Eckerd partners with local elementary schools whose student populations face economic challenges. A group of teaching artists are sent to work with the school's educators.
"I have no words to describe it," said Skycrest Principal Angelean Bing. "It's just awesome watching the kids. The parental support is overwhelming. This is what we should be doing."
On Thursday night, the children presented what they had learned about literature, music, history and science.
Audrey McLendon's second-grade class used masking tape to rope off a performance area, then decorated it with construction paper masks of animals from around the world. The students performed a play and recited poetry, all while smiling and occasionally giggling.
But when the teacher said, "actors neutral," the kids stopped talking. They didn't need to be scolded, but instead stood quietly waiting to go on stage.
"The children are excited and ready to perform," said McLendon. "They've memorized all their lines."
First-graders in Laura Krieger's class had an elaborate backdrop of sea turtles pasted on a wall and a tiki hut as part of their set. They presented a play about newly hatched sea turtles and their journey to the water. The children played characters — some human, some animal, some celestial, and some representing the elements that make up a story.
"When we first started, this was a challenge for students," said Krieger. "They proved to become professional little actors. The parents and I watched their self-confidence go through the roof."
Skycrest's media center transformed into an art gallery — watercolors on the walls, sculptures on the tables, construction paper creations hanging from a wire strung across the room. There, Ruth and Leigh Shaver of Largo found a picture of a cat created by their great-granddaughter, second-grader Madison Renee Shaver.
"We're so proud of her and what she's learned at this school," said Ruth Shaver. "Later she will be playing the part of an eagle. The theme for her class is environmentalism."
In 2005, Skycrest became the school that other educators visit when they're considering teaming up with the PASSport program. Three to five teaching artists go to Skycrest 22 times each during the year, and each grade level has an assigned teaching artist.
"This is our most exciting night for the kids," said Gina Sullivan, Skycrest art teacher and Ruth Eckerd employee. "Every student is performing in a play or reciting poetry, and every child has a piece of art on display."