Reddick Elementary School music teacher Ellen Kleinschmidt cried tears of joy when more than 100 of her students arrived wide eyed and dressed in their best for a recent performance of Shrek the Musical at the Straz Center.
For Kleinschimdt, the real show was watching the fourth- and fifth-graders experience Broadway for the first time. From entering the theater to meeting with cast members after the show, the afternoon was everything Kleinschimdt hoped for. In November, she submitted a grant proposal to the Community Foundation of Sun City Center seeking $6,000 to fund the trip.
"I knew that for some of these kids this could be a-once-in-a-lifetime experience," Kleinschmidt said. "I wanted them to leave loving music and feeling inspired. I think they did."
Kleinschmidt said that of the 600 students at Reddick, 97 percent receive a free or reduced-price lunch. More than 70 children are from farmworker families. Two-thirds are still learning English, and about 20 percent scored a 1 on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Most live below the poverty line and spend little if any time outside Wimauma. Still, they dream of being pop stars or making it big on television. They come to music class eager to learn.
At Shrek, the children sang along with Fiona, laughed at Donkey and recited lines at intermission. They posed for photos. Some left with aspirations to perform.
"I think it's cool how they just get out there and act and they're not scared of the people watching," said Adriana Sanchez, 10. "I want to do that."
Whether her students become performers or astronauts, Kleinschmidt said learning about the arts is as important as learning multiplication.
Because the budget for Hillsborough County schools is tight, each child only gets to attend music class one hour a week. Kleinschmidt rarely sticks to lesson plans. Class is spent singing, dancing and playing instruments.
"It doesn't matter whether they learn the lines and spaces of a staff," she said. "It's important that they know how lives are impacted by music."
Kleinschmidt, 58, graduated with a bachelor's degree in music education from the University of Wisconsin. She previously taught at Cypress Creek Elementary, where she was named Hillsborough County teacher of the year in 2005. She moved to Reddick because many of her students were going to go there.
"I get my students when they start first grade, and I have them until fifth so I get to watch them grow musically," she said. "I've had students go on to study music in college. These kids are the future."
Lewis Resseguie, director of the Sun City Center Community Foundation, said Kleinschmidt's dedication moved him and other board members to award the grant to see Shrek. The foundation gives about $1 million to the arts each year.
"Exposure to the theater can change a child's life," Resseguie said.
Kleinschmidt held auditions this week for Reddick's annual school talent show. One student played rock guitar. Other children took the stage to sing. In class, the boys joked around about Shrek and Fiona's belching scene.
"It might just be me, but I think the kids had a little more confidence after going to the theater," Kleinschmidt said. "They had a little extra spark."
A version of this story appeared in earlier editions of the Times. Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.