Friends of the Coronado: Helping RPS Students Reach for the Stars

The “Reach for the Stars Project” brings every fourth-grade student in the Rockford Public Schools system to one performance a year at the Coronado Performing Arts Center. Discover the impact of this project on Rockford’s youth.

This past year, “Reach for the Stars” brought students to the Coronado Performing Arts Center to see the Alvin Ailey II Dance Company.

When the historic Coronado Performing Arts Center re-opened in 2001 following an $18.5 million restoration, paid for in thanks to tireless fundraising efforts of the Friends of the Coronado Foundation – which spearheaded that massive undertaking – one person was missing.

Gordon Smith, who served as the FOC’s co-chairman alongside his wife Mary Ann Smith, passed away three weeks before the re-opening. When pondering ways to remember Gordy and honor his wish to make Rockford’s crown jewel accessible to the entire community, especially kids, his family decided the best way was to get kids into the theater and spark their imaginations by exposing them to professional, world-class performances.

The Reach for the Stars Project was born, and an endowment fund was established.

“Reach for the Stars was an idea I thought was appropriate to memorialize Gordy’s often-repeated words to me about the Coronado project: ‘It’s for the kids,’” says Mary Ann Smith, now president emerita of the FOC.

The main mission of the Reach for the Stars Project is to get every single fourth-grade student in the Rockford Public School system to one performance during each school year. Beth Howard, FOC’s current executive director, says education specialists recommended focusing on fourth-graders for several reasons.

“If you have to focus on one age group, it’s a great age. They’ll remember they were there, and it will have the greatest impact. And it’s before they’re ‘too cool for school,’ so it’s hitting a bit of a magic spot,” Howard says. “The number of Rockford Public Schools fourth-grade students works out to be almost precisely the number of seats we have at the Coronado.”

To date, in 18 consecutive years, more than 32,000 fourth-graders have attended free world-class touring performances at the Coronado.

“It’s evolved to be something that’s eagerly anticipated each year, especially by teachers and RPS 205, because it has gained an excellent reputation for quality and for delivering a big WOW factor to 10-year-olds,” Smith says.

“I frequently run into 20-somethings who can remember their special day, ‘I was there in fourth grade,’ and they remember exactly what they saw,” Howard adds.

The foundation underwrites the costs of each performance and even pays for busses to transport students to the theater. Last November, students were treated to a free performance by the Alvin Ailey II Dance Company.

“We had a special arrangement with Ailey making it extremely affordable for us, so we were able to offer a free-of-charge evening performance to the community as well,” Howard says. “This was our third time presenting them, and the Ailey organization was very interested in the fact that we were offering this free-of-charge, because that’s their mission – bringing the best of humanity to the world. The fact that we opened our doors and took away most of the accessibility barriers meant a lot to them.”

Howard receives hundreds of notes from students thanking them for the experience and describing what they loved most about the performance they saw. In her office, you’ll find a framed letter she received from a fourth-grader at a bilingual school. “She wrote that the Coronado was like a castle because it has lots of beautiful things and you can look into the sky,” Howard says. The girl added that maybe someday she could bring her children and they would be a Friend of the Coronado, too.

“This nine- or 10-year-old’s first-time experience at the Coronado really sparked something in this child,” Howard says. “She saw the mother that she wants to be. No matter the advantages or disadvantages a person has in life, we feel like this is what the Coronado was designed to do: to take you out of your life in Rockford, Illinois, and take you into a faraway place.”

Howard knows firsthand that Reach for the Stars has a positive impact on students – not just from those heartwarming letters, but from random interactions, too.

Not long after the Ailey performance, Howard was at Rockford Dance Company discussing an upcoming production of “The Nutcracker” when someone approached with a question.

“He wanted to see if he could drop into a dance class,” Howard recalls. “He was trying to feel out what kind of dance class would fit with his experience level. I turned to him and said, ‘Did you happen to go to the Alvin Ailey performance?’ He said yes. And now he wants to dance. How cool is that?”
Reach for the Stars has been such a success that the foundation has begun expanding to additional student projects, starting with the Coronado Classroom.

“For our Coronado Classroom project, we bring mostly third-graders, one classroom at a time, to the Coronado,” Howard explains. The 90-minute experience starts with a multi-disciplinary presentation and includes a tour and a question-and-answer session.

“We take them through and talk about the remarkable spaces. We can talk about the cloud machine and the stars – and the fact that we have constellations on the ceiling, and why they were set exactly as they are,” Howard says. “I tell them ‘Now you are a Coronado expert.’ They love it.” They want to know everything – and third-graders have really fun, interesting questions.”

She recalls one student asking why there were numbers on the seats, which led to a discussion about buying tickets to a show. Another child asked why there was a name on the seat arm.

“I’ll tell you, I just about fell over,” Howard says. “I said, ‘That’s because Mr. and Mrs. Whitehead knew you would want to be here today, so they helped to pay for this beautiful theater to be saved.’ And those kids just lit up. They couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘That’s how much your community cares for you.’ That’s a lesson in civil engagement brought to life.”

Howard appreciates the current administration’s support of the cultural arts and credits the support of the Rockford Public School District for the program’s successful attendance.

“They’re the ones who see that the theater is filled. I don’t take it for granted,” she says. “I am fully aware of the myriad of challenges involved in taking students out of the classroom for a field trip.”

Seeing kids enraptured by live performances or dazzled by the theater’s grandeur is a perk of Howard’s job. She’s also pretty certain most kids go home excited to experience more performing arts, and with an appreciation for the theater itself. That’s why the foundation hopes to expand its educational outreach.

“We’re looking at projects for junior high and high school students. Our goal is to get every single RPS student into this building once a year,” Howard says. “If you think about it, that’s 10 performances, if you start at third grade. That’s doable. Wouldn’t it be remarkable if a student is going to be able to look forward to this each year they’re in school?”

The FOC has already begun expanding the program to include private schools and home-schooled students as well.

Reach for the Stars has been so successful that Howard plans to produce a short video about it, which she hopes to present at the upcoming National Historic Theatre Conference.

“I’ve never heard of anything quite like this in any other theater,” she says. “I’m networked with 440 theaters and have not heard of this scale of a student outreach program anywhere. Not with this depth and consistency.”

While the performances students see are vital, Howard believes the beauty of the Coronado inspires students as well. “We need to make certain the theater’s beauty and historic integrity is maintained. That’s really an important part of the project, too,” she says.

“Every kid who comes to the Coronado is richly rewarded, we believe, in so many ways,” adds Smith.

That’s not surprising, since Howard says everything circles back to the Coronado itself. “The organization really believes this theater is larger than its footprint in this community, and it should be open to the community to experience every chance we can in ways that are accessible for all.”