No Child…

No Child...

No Child…

Written and performed by Nilaja Sun
Directed by Hal Brooks
Special Presentation · Thrust Stage
May 11–June 11, 2008

Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission

With No Child…, Nilaja Sun shines a light on the struggles—and miracles—of America’s public schools. In an incredible solo show, she plays an entire classroom of children, their teachers, their parents, the principal, the janitor and even a security guard with a metal detector at the front door. Sun takes on 16 roles in 70 minutes, transforming her eight-year adventure as a teaching artist into a master class on heartbreak, humor and hope. No Child… proves one passionate person can still make a difference, and this off-Broadway show became the breakaway hit of the year. Critics gave it straight A’s, audiences cheered and Sun won every award you can name. It’s a class act, so don’t leave No Child… behind.

Creative team

Nilaja Sun · Playwright
Hal Brooks · Director
Sibyl Wickersheimer · Local Scenic Design
Narelle Sissons · Original Off-Broadway Scenic Design
Mark Barton · Lighting Design
Jessica Gaffney · Costume Design
Ron Russell · Sound Design
Michael Suenkel · Production Stage Manager

Performer

Nilaja Sun

“Nilaja Sun’s tour-de-force performance as a classroom of multiethnic Bronx high school students, several teachers, the principal, janitor and others, sometimes seemingly all at once, is astonishing but the major achievement of her solo show about attempting to put on a play with worst-case students is the affecting degree to which the students emerge as fully defined individuals. Smoothly staged by Hal Brooks, the crisp, comic and moving 70-minute show is passionate about the need for art in the schools and eloquent about the potential of children too often left behind.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“The most amazing solo show you will ever see…You’ve never seen a performer like her before. And, her ability to structure it with comedy is fantastic…This 70-minute hit show culminates with a most inspiring finish. By all means, don’t miss seeing Nilaja Sun!”—KGO-AM

“A remarkable and delightfully entertaining show…A paean to teachers…Remarkably, it is a 16-character show with only one actor on the stage and playing all the parts…To make this work, she relies on an impressive physicality, both in the way she moves her body and in an evocative array of facial expressions…Sun’s characters are on and off almost before you realize it.”—Contra Costa Times

“A bravura act of performance…Her undaunted sense of optimism as she bounces across the stage as a tireless champion of the arts, the next generation and the fate of citizenry at large, is beyond infectious…It doesn’t just make you want to applaud. It makes you want to hold someone accountable for leaving so very many children behind.”—San Jose Mercury News

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Prologue: from the Education Director

Teaching…by not telling you what to think

At the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre, our intern likes to joke that we have an “institutional policy of not telling people what to think.” Like most statements made in jest, there is a kernel of truth in that. In this case, quite a large one.

There is no question that we live in a world where children are regularly exposed to multiple conflicting viewpoints. As arts educators, our charge is twofold—we have a mission to develop their theatre skills, and we have a responsibility to use theatrical techniques and lessons to challenge our students to engage in the world as critical thinkers. Through the varied programs available at the School of Theatre, students are taught to critically respond to issues that resonate with them. Their final projects comment on these issues in their own vernacular—original plays, poetry, photo collages and videos that connect to their own lives and experience. So our intern’s statement is true—we don’t spoon-feed specific opinions to our students. Instead, we guide them to use the medium of theatre to synthesize complicated ideas, and challenge them to express those impulses in a more complex way than the sound bites and emoticons that make up the majority of their daily communication. These skills will follow these children for their entire lives.

Nilaja Sun approaches her work in the same way—not telling you what to think, but rather, giving you the tools to draw your own conclusions. No Child…, which is based on her experiences as a teaching artist in New York City, represents a complex cross-section of our public schools—16 characters in 70 minutes. This fictionalized world will feel immediately familiar to anyone who has contact with the California public school system. It’s a world populated with No Child Left Behind testing, achievement gap statistics, program improvement levels and staggering budget cuts.

Despite these challenges, the public school system is also a world where teachers and administrators work diligently and with tremendous dedication to make a positive impact on young lives. We, the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre, are active participants in that work. Through partnerships with organizations such as the Alameda County Office of Education and Teaching Artists Organized, local foundations and corporations and a staff of over 40 teaching artists, our outreach programs serve 15,000 students and teachers from California public schools each year. That’s on top of the 5,000 students who participate in our programs at the Theatre and at our school next door.

It takes 16 characters to portray the diversity of one classroom setting—but it takes an entire community to support our public schools. As you’ll see in today’s performance, Nilaja gives every member of the school community an equal voice and persuades her audience to participate in the dialogue about the current state of our public schools.

I encourage you to continue the conversation. Visit our website for a growing list of education resources. Support your local school. Volunteer.

We won’t tell you what to think, but we do expect you to respond.

Enjoy the show.

Rachel Fink

Making the grade

California educators and No Child Left Behind

Literary & Dramaturgy intern Lila Neugebauer speaks with administrators, teachers and school district representatives on the legislation’s impact in California Schools.

The passage of the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB) in 2002 called for greater accountability from public schools, in order to improve all student performance. NCLB mandated that 100% of students be proficient in reading and math by 2014; to that end, the law entails a substantial increase in testing and disclosure of results for specific racial and economic sub-groups. States are responsible for determining testing standards, but progress is measured against a national proficiency bar.

For the 2002–03 academic year, schools were required to demonstrate that at least 12.8% of students (in all sub-groups) tested proficiently on math and English exams. Each year, the bar is raised (23.7% in 2003–2004, 34.6% in 2004–2005), culminating in the mandated 100% proficiency by 2014.

Schools that fail to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) for two consecutive years are classified as Program Improvement Schools. These schools are subjected to accountability provisions and penalties, including the imposition of outside tutorial programs, scripted curricula and, in some cases, the removal of administrators and teachers.

Since 2002, more than 9,000 of the nation’s 90,000 public schools have been identified as “in need of improvement.” Given the escalating annual proficiency bar, experts predict that those numbers could skyrocket in coming years.

In a rare instance of consensus, NCLB was passed with strong bipartisan support from Congress—indicating widespread agreement that US public schools were in dire need of attention and improvement. NCLB was intended, in significant part, to remedy the “achievement gap” between students of varying racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds.

While many administrators, teachers and researchers laud the civil rights agenda of NCLB, few dispute that funding remains insufficient to achieve 100% proficiency by 2014.

Many also lament the law’s design flaws, including modes of measuring progress, strategies for improvement and uniformity of performance expectation, regardless of student demographics and available resources.

While there is evidence that national test scores have risen, the implications for classroom learning have been widely decried—as increased classroom time must be devoted to preparing for tests, and teachers have less flexibility to respond to students’ varied learning needs.

What follows are testimonials from teachers, administrators and school district affliates on the effect of NCLB in California schoools.

Amy Epstein
Former District Administrator, Oakland Unified School District

NCLB is a travesty of justice and language. In Oakland nearly half the kids in ninth grade read far below grade level—many below the sixth-grade level. If you really didn’t want to leave any children behind, you’d think about better teacher training, better collaboration models for teachers and smaller class sizes. You’d need massive structural change. And they just didn’t fund that—NCLB is an under-funded band-aid. The day-to-day impact of NCLB in Oakland and all over the country is that the curriculum has been drastically narrowed. Kids have two periods of English/language arts and two periods of math. Not only do electives get cut out, but a lot of schools are finding that they can’t fit history and science into the schedule. Drop-out rates are accelerating. Schools are having to teach to the test. It’s really demoralized teachers. They feel they have no freedom to incorporate things into the curriculum that matter to them or that relate to the community in which they teach. These schools go into survival mode. In many cases, they have no choice but to focus on the kids who are right below the passing score, the proficiency score. In that sense, neither the students who are struggling the most nor those who are achieving are getting attention. And the long-term effects are terrible—in terms of who it’s driven out of teaching, as well as how it has warped and eroded the practices of school districts.

Leni von Blanckensee
Coordinator of Assessment and Intervention, Alameda Unified School District

The initial goal of closing the achievement gap was something that most of us in the Bay Area support. To the degree that it initially pushed people to work harder in that arena—that was a good thing. The problem is that there was never any real funding or support for reaching that goal. Schools that get Federal Title I funding for high-poverty student populations are put into “Program Improvement,” which is more about punishment than improvement. Now, as a result of NCLB, many districts are reluctant to identify new schools that could and should be Title I schools. For example, if a school has about 30% of the kids testing at proficiency level right now, Title I funding could help that school improve. But by next year, they’ll have to reach 36% proficiency for every sub-group, the following year 45% for every sub-group, and then it’s a straight line up the graph to 100% proficient by 2014. So on one hand, a district could offer this school support and funding by identifying them as a Title I school. They need that support, but why would you give them the funding when you know they could very well end up in Program Improvement? Is this funding a gift or a punishment? Districts are avoiding identifying those schools because the repercussions of deeming them Title I schools can be so negative. Exactly the people that should be served, that you want to serve, you realize you may actually be penalizing.

Orlando Ramos
Principal, Richmond High School

What I like about NCLB is that for the first time, schools are being forced to look at what many have intentionally or unintentionally glossed over for a long time: the performance of African-American and Latino students. But NCLB is unfair. Richmond High School is in year five of Program Improvement—but what I see in the classroom just doesn’t reflect that status. I see some incredible things going on. My native kids are growing and growing. But 70% of my school is made up of English-language learners. I’m being compared to a Walnut Creek school comprised primarily of middle and upper income students born and raised here. I have kids coming from Mexico, Guatemala, all over Central and South America. They may be 16 but they’ve only been educated to a third-grade level. How should you measure that? Why should we be penalized for that? On top of that, more than half of the kids who walk in here walk out before the end of the year—their families are in search of work or housing. Again, according to NCLB, that makes us a failure.

Peter Murchison
Principal, Irvington High School (Fremont)

The good thing about NCLB is that it says we’ve got to have some measurable standards that tell us who is making it and who’s not. Ten to 15 years ago, the factors that determined whether a kid got a diploma weren’t as focused. There are schools that are still giving out diplomas that don’t really represent standards. At Irvington, we now have a clearer sense about who we need to work with. We now know which kids need the help, and we know what some of their shortcomings are.

But our test scores are relatively high. It’s the inner-city schools which get put in Program Improvement that are subjected to unfair measures. They’re dealing with at-risk kids, and the state and district determine it’s the school’s fault that the students aren’t performing. But no one provides the finances and the equipment to go to war. If you’re in the inner city, this isn’t about raising 15–20 points on a test. You’re dealing with kids who don’t want to come to school, buildings that are falling apart. We’re not fighting that battle.

Jennifer Rader
Director, El Cerrito High School Community Project

California already ranks in the bottom tenth in the country in per pupil spending. And on top of that, you have the recent budget cuts. The amount of time and resources that we have to put into this testing—it’s staggering. We’re having to hack away at the curriculum; all the parts of learning that turn students on—creative writing, the arts, music, physical education—all are diminished under the relentless pressure to increase test scores. When you work in communities that are challenged by poverty and violence, and are under-resourced starting in kindergarten, and you force these schools to use their limited resources to document that students are academically challenged instead of using those resources to train and support teachers, or bring in classroom resources, or even plug the holes in the leaking walls and ceilings—at best it’s an ineffective use of resources, at worst it’s a crime.

Rick Ayers
English teacher (1995–2006) and founder of Communication, Arts and Sciences program, Berkeley High School

Right now in Berkeley it’s really the elementary school tests that are threatening to shut schools down. But even Berkeley High is getting hit with a mania for testing, although the school’s performance is too good to run too much of a risk. It is a highly segregated school internally, but because we have so many kids doing well, it’s masked from the blunt instrument of NCLB attacks. The biggest problem for teachers at Berkeley High is whether your vice principal or administrator will allow you to use project-based learning to push students to higher-level thinking—activities like taking the kids to the Mission to look at murals and write reflective papers. We’re under serious pressure to do more drilling, less creative projects. Should I make my students smarter or should I get them ready for the test? They don’t go together. NCLB altogether is based on false assumptions that you can teach these kids to pass. Standardized tests are resistant to teaching.

Jason Lustig
Principal, King Middle School (Berkeley)

NCLB has had a drastic impact in many East Bay schools, which were required by their districts to redo all reading, writing and math programs. Many schools were reconstituted. They moved a lot of people around. Principals have been fired for not improving performance. Some schools have gone the test factory route, in many cases because districts have encouraged that. There have not been too many major effects in Berkeley, largely because the administration has had an enlightened approach to the problem, from the superintendent down to administrators, teachers and parents.

Berkeley’s trouble with NCLB mostly pertains to the conflict between state law and federal law. Under testing law in California, parents have the right to opt out of the testing [for their children]. But under NCLB, if you don’t have 95% of students testing, you don’t meet the standard. A lot of schools wind up in Program Improvement because of lack of participation.

Adriana Siguenza
Literacy Coach, Los Angeles Unified School District

One of the key factors to success is having high expectations. The impact [of NCLB] certainly depends on the school culture, but I’ve seen students at my school rise to the expectations set. My school is around 87% Latino, and with our English-language learners, we’ve risen from the 500s in our API score to 730.

Last year we became a Program Improvement school, and our one year of Program Improvement was incredible. Every child in the school was eligible for free tutoring. They had the opportunity to be tutored at home, though many opted to stay the extra hour in school. We held summer school classes. Our principal also put much of the funding into professional development— and I see teachers putting the instructional skills they developed into practice. We met our goals and moved out of Program Improvement, and we’re now on hold. The pressure of being standards-based is certainly huge. I worked for seven years in the classroom and the sentiment among teachers was that there was too much pressure put on these students; you could really feel the tension. I’ve seen many veteran teachers retire. But I’ve seen some incredible changes at my school; these kids are doing far more than we ever expected ten years ago.

Woody Price
Head of School, The Branson School (Marin County)

As a private school, we are not directly affected by NCLB. But we sometimes think we benefit as more and more families become disenchanted with the testing requirements of NCLB and the impact of these testing regimes on public schooling.

Laura Parker
Assistant Principal, Mission High School (San Francisco)

One of the particular difficulties here [with NCLB] is that it creates a culture of blame. The district is under pressure to perform, and the teachers feel like they’re being blamed. It makes it more difficult for people to take risks or try new things. A lot of the interventions have scripted programs, which seriously affect the personal engagement between students and teachers. The research shows that all it takes is one caring adult to make a difference in a student’s life. So while of course there needs to be accountability, when the curriculum is scripted and the pressure is so high, an individual teacher’s passion doesn’t get communicated to a student. It’s assembly-line education instead of teaching students to inquire and question and discover.

Lisa Hiltbrand
Sixth-grade teacher, Urban Promise Academy (Oakland)

I’ve been teaching for almost 20 years in Oakland. I’m now seeing sixth graders who have never read a book independently, because all they’ve had is scripted curriculum. They’ve never read more than excerpts, taken totally out of context. They see reading as a skill, because all emphasis has been placed on reading to do well on tests, but there is little love of reading. These students have never had art, music, nothing like that. I’m their humanities teacher, but I’m also their art teacher, because we have no art classes. With many of them, my first art lesson is simply how to color.

NCLB is destroying the teaching profession. I didn’t go into teaching to teach a scripted curriculum. What person who thinks at all creatively would want to do that? I absolutely love my job, but it makes me heartsick to see what’s happening to the profession—and I don’t know that I could really advise a young person who is thinking of going into teaching today to do so. It’s economically unfeasible, there’s little opportunity to think creatively and there’s this additional, unbearable pressure to raise test scores.

Watch now

Production trailer

A trailer for Nilaja Sun’s tour-de-force production of No Child….