Last season, the Rising Star Project welcomed nearly one hundred students into The 5th Avenue Theatre to mount a full-scale production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel. The theater also partnered with educators to bring nearly 2,000 students from over 20 local schools to see the production created by their peers. None of this would be possible without the dedication and support of our partner teachers. They make amazing things happen for students every day. This is a snapshot of one of them.
At six thirty-five in the morning on any given school day, you’ll find Heath Thompson in front of a heavy-eyed group of teenagers at Kent Meridian High School. It’s time for vocal warm-ups. Gradually, amid a couple of yawns and a few tired sighs, creaky voices give way to rising scales, arpeggios, and eventual melodies.
“It never feels natural to be singing so early in the morning,” laments Thompson. “But it teaches my students discipline—in a way nothing else could.” But he will admit that the coffee machine is as essential to the music department’s success as their piano.
This fall marks Thompson’s tenth year of predawn choir classes and music education in the Kent School District. It also marks the fifth year since he and his students first came in contact with the Rising Star Project. In the program’s first year, one of Thompson’s choir students was cast in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
“I remember him coming out onstage in his mutton chops as this old curmudgeon… And there was a great sense of pride. For him to be able to say he had stepped out on that stage, it meant so much. Being able to actually see him have that experience was… amazing.”
Thompson is eager to profess his love for his students and their unique school community. But, like so many educators, he struggles with the day-to-day realities of teaching in a community that many would label as underserved.
“Kent Meridian is the most diverse school in Washington State. And it is a high school that doesn’t have much of a musical theater program.” Thompson cites many factors that hinder the arts, despite unwavering interest from students and teachers. “Socioeconomic status, location, and even cultural barriers can shift concerns away from the arts. Just getting by, day-to-day, is challenging enough. But for that very reason, if you want to see a school that absolutely needs additional support for its arts programs—you don’t have to go much farther than KM.”
After a few minutes of conversation with Thompson, you recognize that he has never been one to let systemic challenges derail plans that he has for his students. At the same time, he faces many obstacles that every teacher will sympathize with—but that most people won’t immediately associate with a choir classroom.
“One interesting challenge is working with students that have either just moved to America—or are from such a different culture—and have no concept of rehearsal or performance. I’m working with brilliant students but some are still breaking through American cultural and language barriers. It can be difficult trying to rehearse at the high school level while teaching basic English reading skills at the same time.”
Through the years, however, Thompson has honed his toolbox of strategies.
“I expose my students to musical theater as much as I can. I give students material that they are able to understand emotionally—even if they aren’t necessarily understanding all of the words. I need to incorporate musical theater and the physical storytelling. Being dramatic transcends the language barrier. And it helps to teach a student about what a song means—they don’t necessarily have to understand English to understand the art.”
Last year, Thompson once again saw one of his students join the cast of the Rising Star Project—this time for a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. It was also the first year that the school was invited to attend a matinee performance and cheer on their classmate.