CATEGORY: Students, Teachers and Leaders

Melissa Jun 11, 2024

This Spring, Achievement First Hartford Elementary School showed audiences a whole new world with its production of Aladdin Kids. Students took to the stage with dazzling performances, captivating audiences, sometimes even surprising themselves, and seeing their families brimming with pride. The show's success is part of an inspiring story about teamwork, dedication, creativity, and the importance of arts education. It began two years ago when former AF Hartford Elementary School Principal Raven Obas recognized the need for a drama or music club. Obas was sure of two things: she wanted her students to have the enrichment opportunities they deserved, even with limited resources, and she also knew that one of her teachers, Bennett Cognato, would be a great person to get a drama club off the ground due to his experience with music and community theater.  When Raven approached Bennett, who has taught various subjects like Social Studies, Reading and Math in his eight years as an AF teacher, he embraced the challenge. Bennett was excited to apply his experience in community theater and music to help make the drama club happen. While growing up, Bennett participated in his school’s band and theater, noting the joy these activities brought him. He emphasized the positive impact of arts education on academic success and personal growth, and studies show that this is true -  students involved in the arts are more likely to excel academically, attend school regularly, and graduate at higher rates. Suzette Warren, a six-year AF teacher, and Alia-Mae Blake, a resident substitute teacher at AF Hartford Elementary School, worked with Bennett to start the drama club with a small group of students and volunteers, including AF teachers Nkechi Ezichi and Jessica Duque. Suzette, one of the Assistant Directors of Aladdin Kids, proudly noted the club's growth since it started. They started with four full-time volunteers and did smaller-scale productions the previous year with 40 students, including a holiday concert, Lion King Kids, and A Concert for Peace. “After doing Lion King last year, we knew we wanted to continue the program. The school had dance and art, but there wasn’t any music or performance art, and we saw how excited the kids were about it last year.”  This year, the Aladdin Kids production was also open to AF Hartford Middle School students to give those who couldn’t participate in last year’s Lion King an opportunity to get involved. With so much interest from students across grade levels, two casts were needed for Aladdin Kids’ two performances, encouraging incredible teamwork from students and staff across grade levels.  Alia-Mae reflected on the difference between their two biggest productions. One key difference this year was that Principal Cruz and Marc Michaelson, AF’s Senior Director of K-12 Enrichment and Expeditions, secured some funding for Aladdin Kids to make the show come to life. “While I believe we nailed Lion King, when thinking about some of the memorable scenes in Aladdin Kids, it was very important that we did things like bringing in new tech. I remember the excitement and ‘realness’ we felt when we visited the first costume shop. The pride and excitement I felt when the kids first performed ‘One Jump Ahead,’ though? Unreal.” In addition to funding, you need collaboration, passion, and dedication, which this crew had plenty of. The staff’s passion was contagious, with many stepping up to work on the production in different capacities, including lighting, sound, and set design. The Hartford community also played a crucial role in the production’s success, with donations of various costumes and props from family and friends. Families purchased ads in the playbill to support their performers, staff ran bake sales to fundraise, and several teachers stayed after hours to help students with their lines, set designs, dances, and songs. Bennett recalls driving up to Massachusetts with his father one Saturday to pick up some pieces for the set. “Everyone got involved. I got to share what I do with my family, and it was so rewarding.” This collaboration demonstrated the power of community support in creating unforgettable experiences for our children. Suzette reflected on another reason for the show's success: "Every student who was there really wanted to be there and worked hard. We rehearsed for five or six months, most weeks, four days a week. The kids were excited and committed.”  Third grader Chinoyah, who played Jasmine, shared her excitement about singing "A Whole New World." She felt like a star and was thrilled by the experience of performing in front of an audience. “I learned that I can do anything, even if I’m really scared,” she said, adding that her mom was incredibly proud and emotional during the performance. Dyanna, another third grader who played the Genie, loved the rehearsals the most. “At first, you feel like you might not be ready, but the audience clapping and cheering lets you know your greatness,” she said. Through this experience, she discovered she had a strong singing and acting voice. Fourth grader Malachi, who played Aladdin, enjoyed the Cave of Wonders scene and his duet with Jasmine. He felt like a hero during the performance, especially when putting Jafar into the lamp. “One thing I learned about drama club is that everyone has a hidden talent they don’t know about. I think mine was acting and singing,” he reflected. The drama club's impact extends beyond the stage. Students who previously struggled with reading improved as they read scripts and helped each other remember lines. By playing a character and putting themselves in another person’s life, students developed a sense of empathy while learning about different cultures and parts of the world. Shy students shined and came alive on stage with new confidence. Students formed new friendships, discovered new interests, and developed new skills. Teachers and families saw their scholars gain confidence, patience, and the ability to work well with others. Suzette recalls a parent thanking the team and noting they had never seen their child light up this way. The Hartford team recognizes that funding programs like these can be challenging. While high-quality arts programs are often available in more affluent communities, all students deserve the same opportunities and access to enrichment activities. Alia-Mae hopes that one day, they can even take students to a Broadway production and show the kids what theater is like at the highest level. Suzette and Bennett echo these sentiments, emphasizing the importance of the arts since they give students different skills and allow them to connect the dots to their learning in the classroom. “Since Aladdin wrapped up, we have 20 kids from 2-5th grade learning to play guitar. The work that we are doing is inspiring people to take their artistry to a new level. Both students and teachers are tapping into their creative expertise,” Bennett proudly shares. “There is a budget line for after-school programs that wasn’t there last year; we are setting up space for more arts opportunities.” The AF Hartford ES Team has a few hopes and dreams for the future of the Drama Club:
  • Partner with community organizations to connect the drama club with the Hartford community
  • Secure more funding for the club to continue to produce excellent shows 
  • Ensure drama clubs or similar programs are available in every AF school
  • Secure resources so teachers can bring their passions to more after-school programs
If you want to support arts education for our students so they can continue to grow and learn, please consider donating here. Learn more about our Hartford schools here.

About the author


 Back to Achievement Forward