MANITOWOC – “I wish that more students were engaged in the arts. I think there’s a lot of untapped talent at Lincoln, and I’m sure across the whole district,” says Samantha Czekala, a senior in Lincoln High School’s theater program.
In February 2022, Samantha Czekala and fellow Lincoln senior Abigail Barnett worked hard planning their final National Honor Society community service project: a student-run musical theater workshop for middle-schoolers in the Manitowoc Public School District.
The students would observe a rehearsal for the high school’s winter musical and workshop parts of choreography, music and acting.
The seniors’ project is a direct response to the decreasing number of students in the Lincoln theater program, so it was discouraging when only 10 of the projected 40 students registered.
Barnett and Czekala were forced to postpone the workshop to April 6 and 11 in hopes of recruiting a higher number of young students to experience the high school program.
Flourishing in recent decades is the scope of youth fine arts opportunities in Manitowoc, but since 2020, arts and music classes have seen setbacks at MSPD schools.
As classes recovered from virtual schooling, they also had to adapt to district-wide changes to class schedules and grading scales.
“All those things combined have made teaching a little bit harder,” says John Dorn, Lincoln’s teacher for photography, yearbook and graphic design/illustration. “It just feels like it’s hard to keep up some days.”
Dorn expressed that his students appreciate being back in class, but elsewhere in the art wing, teachers and students are still feeling negative repercussions from COVID-19.
“The arts completely changed [at the beginning of the pandemic],” says Deanne Stokes, theater teacher at Lincoln. “At first, it felt like it was decimated. But what I found was that artists are very resilient and find ways to perform.”
In the last two years, Lincoln Theater has persevered by performing over Zoom, live-streaming a masked musical, and having to replace actors and backstage technicians last minute in their competition one-act play.
“Flexibility we have learned,” Stokes says.
Although issues with engagement arise in the aftermath of virtual classes, the number of students in Lincoln theater appears to also be directly affected by the loss of the middle-school theater program.
“I came here 20 years ago with the hope of building a K-12 program in the Manitowoc Public School District,” Stokes says. “We build our programs within our district from little on. We should be doing the same thing with theater. All the arts.”
The music program has also seen setbacks across the district. Michelle Bernhardt, a music teacher at Madison, Washington and Wilson, has been building her program over almost 20 years and once had 226 students from one school in choir. Now, at that same school, she has 30 students in choir.
“It’s frustrating that I have to do this again,” says Bernhardt. “You know, the 20 years of blood, sweat and tears has come to this, but I can either give up and crawl in bed and pull the covers over my head, or I can go out and make music and do the best I can each day … and hope that one or two kids along the way learn that they can make it.”
Bernhardt discussed the behavior of students who have not seen a full, standard school year since 2018.
“No one does poorly because they want to, right?” she says. “Nobody sets out to be like that. All we can do is pick up, meet the kids where they are now and help them find a way to go forward.”
Rebekah Nyenhuis, who teaches three concert bands, International Baccalaureate music and adaptive music at Lincoln High School, adds, “There’s a lot of gaps. There’s huge gaps.”
When asked about achieving her classes’ usual standard for performance, she responded: “I can’t get to ‘usual’. It’s not possible and that’s OK. It can’t be a realistic expectation for myself or for the students, either.”
Adds David Bowman, choir teacher at Lincoln: “COVID was devastating to arts programs across the nation. I think it’s going to be a long time before we actually get back to where we were in terms of participation.”
The music department has been tasked by the district to collaborate on a plan to encourage students to join fine arts electives in the future.
Along with potential changes to the middle school music curriculum, teachers swap classes and visit students regularly to unite the program and its students.
Bowman, the high school choir teacher, routinely travels to the middle schools and collaborates with Bernhardt.
High school choirs and bands tour middle and elementary schools.
A string quartet from the Manitowoc Symphony Orchestra performs and works with middle school orchestra students to inspire them.
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There’s no question about the value of fine arts education to teachers and students. Lincoln senior foreign exchange student Mia Krčum has taken four visual arts electives this year, was a sound technician for the winter musical, and is now part of the cast in the spring play. She appreciates the fine arts opportunities in MPSD, saying, “It’s just so diverse, and there’s so much you can try out and experiment with.”
“It can be an outlet for a lot of kids that wouldn’t have one otherwise,” says Czekala.
Bowman expressed his value of fine arts in his philosophy of teaching, stating, “I think we need to create balance within ourselves, and arts is a great way to balance your spirit with the physicality of your life and the academic aspects of your life as well.”
May Heili is a senior journalism student at Manitowoc Lincoln High School.