EDINBURG — Donning horns, furry coats, wings and even knight armors for class is not rare for students at PSJA North High School as their theater class allows them to embody all kinds of creatures.
The program has about 150 high school participants and an additional 30 middle schoolers, and this week it was recognized as one of 50 in the entire nation to receive a $10,000 award by the NBC R.I.S.E. — Recognizing and Inspiring Student Expression — American Grant.
“Our whole program is really trying to provide as much opportunity for kids to experience live theater,” said Bryan Honl, PSJA North theater director. “We had about 27 performances with our children’s shows this year for close to 10,000 people.”
The award is part of a partnership between NBC and the non-profit Educational Theater Foundation. The funding can be used to cover a wide range of critical needs such as equipment, production expenses and master classes.
According to the foundation’s press release, more than 1,000 schools applied to receive the award. Out of the 50 selected only three were in Texas, including PSJA North, Alice High School in Alice, and Jack Yates High School in Houston.
News of the grant came as the students prepare to present “She Kills Monsters,” a play which was scheduled to open Thursday evening. And even as they had just been notified Monday of the additional funds that will soon support the department, their minds were set on preparing for a show.
“It’s a mix between fantasy and a slice of life,” explained Diego Sifuentes, 15, about the play for which he was wearing a furry wolf-like coat complete with claws. “It’s a story of a sister getting to know her younger sister, who died in a car accident, through a game… It’s a play of comedy and drama.”
Students attending this high school and its two feeder middle schools — LBJ and Liberty Middle — tend to be from low socioeconomic backgrounds, Honl explained, and theater allows them to experience different aspects of the world that they wouldn’t otherwise.
“Our students learn how to communicate,” he said. “We are really working to build the leaders of tomorrow, and one of the most important things of being a leader is… you have to be able to communicate and share your ideas.”
The main expectation is not for every student to become a prominent actor, he said, but for every student to gain real life skills such as communication, project management and hard work.
“You learn how to dream and you learn how to make those dreams a reality,” Honl said.
Using this grant, Honl said they will have the opportunity to invest in program costs and assess where the money can also facilitate visits from professional mentors and exposure to plays locally.
The more opportunities the students have to get involved in the arts the better, he said, but these expenses also increased for the high school as the program began involving middle school students about two years ago.
This was done as a way to not only seek their interest at an earlier age, but grow the program eventually as it was starting to lose students to the increasing workloads related to dual enrollment and other college related for-credit programs.
“We are very fortunate here at PSJA that all the high schools are now early college high schools… but it means that we really have to compete to get the students,” he said. “We figured that the earlier we hook them and get them involved then the more kids we’ll continue to have.”