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Music teacher at Longleaf Elementary in New Port Richey taking student performers to Hawaii

Music teacher Jim Wanker’s students have performed in Washington, D.C., and Williamsburg, Va., and at Walt Disney World in Orlando.

Gail Diederich | Times

Music teacher Jim Wanker’s students have performed in Washington, D.C., and Williamsburg, Va., and at Walt Disney World in Orlando.

After hearing Jim Wanker's kids perform two summers ago on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the folks with American Musical Salute had just one question:

Would the Spotlight Kids like to come to Hawaii?

The troupe, with its patriotic songs and dances, would represent Florida at a special 50th anniversary celebration of Hawaii's statehood.

Wanker didn't think long about it. He knew the students and their abilities, and knew the trip was possible if they could raise the travel money, about $1,200 per student.

He said yes, and a committed group of 21 students have dedicated their Sunday evenings to practicing.

"These children will always remember and be proud they took part in this," said Evelyn Gallante, whose children, Christina and Mikey, will make the trip.

And they will never forget the teacher who got them there.

• • •

Wanker, a 46-year-old music teacher at Longleaf Elementary, has a 20-year history of creating musical opportunities for kids. Traveling with his own group of elementary and middle school kids is a tall order, but Wanker makes it look easy.

"I'm sort of a big kid myself," said Wanker. "I want kids to say they have learned to love music."

Wanker, who grew up in Pittsburgh, got his start at age 10 with piano lessons. After three months, he ditched the formal training and just taught himself.

In high school he was a vocalist in a chamber group and performed with a musical group that grabbed first place at an international competition in Mexico.

He came to the University of South Florida to pursue a degree in music performance. He met his wife, Patty, while she was earning her degree in music education. He worked some retail jobs to pay the bills, but when he saw how much Patty enjoyed being a teacher, he decided he would like to teach music too.

Wanker got his first job as a music teacher in 1990 at what then was Richey Fundamental School.

That first year, he gathered kids and started a performing group. He took them on tour to a handful of local schools, and later the groups gave performances at Disney World. Those performances, in time, earned him Disney's Outstanding Director award for 1997.

Heather Solberg, now 27, was a fourth- and fifth-grader in the early groups.

"Performing gave us an opportunity to do things we'd never done. It was so different and started me on my love for the arts," said Solberg, who continued with theater work and took vocal performance courses at USF. "Mr. Wanker brought the best out of you artistically."

Those thoughts continue with current students.

"It's like a mini-career, getting a head start in a singing and acting world," said McKenna Chefero, 10, poised in her shiny pink dress with sparkling sequins at a recent dress rehearsal.

• • •

At first, in the early '90s, it was easy to line up performances for the students. Disney invited groups from the area and there was no charge.

But in time Disney began charging fees, and there were travel expenses too. The Pasco school district didn't want to sponsor a traveling group, so Wanker created a private studio performing group, known since 2007 as the Spotlight Kids.

The number of students in the group varies, and kids pay a weekly fee for performance instructions. Tryouts initially define who is in the group.

Wanker makes all of the tour arrangements with the help of his wife, who handles the business end of things. Their only child, Adam, 17, was involved in earlier years but is now busy with his own high school interests.

After Wanker moved to Cotee River Elementary in 1993, he called politicians in Washington, D.C., and got help with arrangements for his students to perform there. Another year, they did presentations in Williamsburg, Va.

Wanker was named Teacher of the Year at Marlowe Elementary in 2004, and that fall went to the newly opened Longleaf Elementary School and formed Freedom Singers and Liberty Singers, based on auditions.

Their impressive patriotic song and dance productions earned them the opportunity to perform in Washington, D.C. ,in the summer of 2007 as the Spotlight Kids, where they caught the attention of the organizers of Hawaii's 50th anniversary celebration.

While their friends are watching movies, texting on cell phones or just doing nothing, The Spotlight Kids spend two hours most Sunday evenings rehearsing patriotic songs and dances.

July 4, they'll present their polished acts at Pearl Harbor near the USS Missouri.

With less than two months to go, the enthusiasm is growing.

"I'm really looking forward to performing in front of monumental places," says Jayde Reid, 14, and an eighth-grader at Seven Springs Middle School.

Parents watched the rehearsal, beaming with pride over their children and brimming with appreciation for Wanker.

"He puts more into this than money can buy," said Gallante.



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Spotlight Kids are available for community performances. Reservations can be made by calling (727) 376-9154. Donations to help with the costs of the Hawaii trip are welcomed.

Music teacher at Longleaf Elementary in New Port Richey taking student performers to Hawaii 05/13/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 8:59pm]
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