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How To Choose School Performers

Enrichment activities and school performers bring fresh insight and perspectives. Find the best fit for your school.

by Evelyn Beck
PHOTO BY AQUARIUM OF THE PACIFIC

Arts and science activities have been a staple of school enrichment programs for decades. But much has changed. When Jean Butler got into the business of managing school performers 25 years ago, the focus was on art for art’s sake, with the main concern that children not be pulled out of class for something that wasn’t worthwhile. Nowadays, says Butler, president of Arts Are Essential in Acton, Mass., there’s “a mandate to tie the performances somewhat to the curriculum. It is more of a challenge.”

If the enrichment activities you bring to your school must connect explicitly to the curriculum, confer with teachers about areas they would like to reinforce or highlight. “The teachers might say, ‘It would be really nice to have something on state history for the fourth grade’ or ‘Language arts could stand to get people excited about it,’ ” says John Loyd, a partner with Loyd Artists in Asheville, N.C. You can also seek a stamp of approval by asking your local arts council for a list of artists approved to perform in schools.

Beyond the curriculum connection, it’s important to understand the interests of different age groups as well as your school’s culture. “It’s hard for a kindergarten parent to book for sixth-graders; they don’t know how a sixth-grader thinks and reacts,” says Butler, who suggests having a mix of parents involved in planning enrichment activities. And artists who are wildly successful at one school might not be a good match for another. Skimpy modern dance clothing barely noticed at one place, for example, might alarm a neighboring institution’s staff and parents. It’s also wise to rotate both the groups of students pulled out of class for performances and the teachers who might have to give up their prep time.

At some schools, performers are booked by the parent group; at others, PTOs gather information about various options and then pass it over to the decisionmakers. “Each school has its own climate,” says Butler. She advises parent group leaders to recommend artists and dates to the principal or teachers, then wait for a go-ahead to negotiate the contract. “Some administrators don’t wish to give up that authority to a parent,” she adds. “You’re not going to have a whole lot of luck changing how the school is functioning. Figure out how you can best work in that system.”

Finding Performers

One place to begin searching for performers is your state arts council, humanities council, or local children’s museum; organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts and the Association of Children’s Museums often list their state and regional members on their websites.

If you’re thinking about an author visit, ask your school librarian to help identify hot books, then check authors’ or publishers’ websites for appearance information. Call your local bookstore about scheduled book signings. And search for authors in directories from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Children’s Book Council, and the Author Illustrator Source.

Other sources for arts-related programs are your local arts council, community theaters, and museums. Area colleges and universities also may hire out their student musicians, singers, and actors.

For science programs, start with a local science center or science museum, which is likely to have a variety of programs for school assemblies and workshops. Don’t overlook your school district, though; it may have its own great programs already. Edina Public Schools in Minnesota offers InvestiGREAT!, which features presentations on such subjects as electricity, chemistry, sound, and weather. There are regional and local companies that produce school science programs, as well. One national science company with hundreds of locally operated franchises is Mad Science.

Many local agencies also represent school performers; search for them online or in the phone book. National agencies include Academic Entertainment and the Bureau of Lectures and Concert Artists.

The absolute best way to identify talent is to watch it yourself, however. Go to performances at other schools. Check out showcases, which are sneak previews held by libraries, performers’ agents, arts councils, and regional theaters; they’re usually free and allow you to see the talents of many different artists in mini-performances.

Tap into local arts networks, too—and if there isn’t one locally, start one. Butler remembers a team from New Hampshire driving down to sit in on the meetings of the West Suburban Creative Arts Council, an alliance of 70 community representatives in Massachusetts, as a model for setting up their own network. “There are people out there,” Butler says. “You just have to look.

Crunching the Numbers

Certain performers may work for free, especially if they live in your town (such as a local writer eager for publicity) or if their appearance also promotes a corporation (such as the program “It’s Book Time with Ronald McDonald” ). But in most cases, hiring a performer costs from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on experience and reputation, the demands of the performance, the region you live in, and the performer’s travel time and expenses. Author Neal Shusterman, for example, charges $2,100 for a full-day school visit; he travels nationally, and his fee includes all expenses. At Colorado State University, a local outreach program called “Little Shop of Physics” lasts about an hour and costs $300 to $400.

Some performers will negotiate their fee; others won’t. It never hurts to ask. If you’re hiring a performer for a longer stretch (say, a 15-day residency as opposed to a single morning assembly), he’s more likely to offer a discount.

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Cut costs by partnering with other area schools or organizations like libraries, arts councils, and bookstores to hold performances during the same day or week. You also might be able to negotiate a better price if you book a date when a performer is already planning to be in your area. Sometimes you can even piggyback onto an existing event, such as an author book signing, for little or no cost.

Grant money may also be available. The Oklahoma Humanities Council offers a rebate to schools that hire its “History Alive!” performers, and the Captain Planet Foundation awards grants ranging from $250 to $2,500 for projects that teach about environmental issues.

Negotiating the Contract

Before you reach the contract-signing stage, be sure that you and the performer or his representative have worked out the schedule (including break times), as well as special requests such as bottled water. Discuss the space that will be used and what will be needed, such as electricity or tables and chairs. Ask whether there are special security or janitorial needs. Find out whether flash photography and videotaping are permitted. The performer also needs to know whether your school has a bell system or other audio notification so the noise doesn’t interrupt the performance.

Follow the performer’s guidelines about audience size, age range, space requirements, and so forth. “Really pay attention to how many students a group says they can perform for,” says Joan Schaeffer, president of the Naperville, Ill.-based Historical Perspectives for Children, which provides performers who reenact the lives of famous figures like Helen Keller. “If the group won’t guarantee for over 300, that’s because of experience. Visibility and intimacy can suffer if there are more than 300. You need to understand that so children in the back won’t be disappointed.”

“We send out a seating chart,” says Dave Heflick, a musician who does school assemblies and the author of How To Make Money Performing in Schools. “We want young ones on the floor near the stage, older ones on chairs in the back. Those kinds of things can have enormous impact.”

When you receive the contract, read every line carefully. Look especially for stipulations regarding cancellations. If something unforeseen happens, you may still be responsible for all or part of the fee. Look for the performer’s policy about rescheduling in case of bad weather or other events, including the performer’s illness. If the performance will be held outside, what’s the rain policy—will the performance move indoors, or will it need to be rescheduled? If you want a performer to reserve a rain date, you might have to pay a sizable extra fee.

The contract should spell out what has already been agreed to verbally. This includes the date and day of the week, the start and end times, and the number of performances. It states the fee and the amount of deposit due up front, as well as when the balance must be paid and whose name is on the check. It should also make clear whether there are additional fees, such as for travel expenses or giveaways to the students.

The performer needs the name of the school and clear, precise driving directions with exit numbers and street names, as well as a map. Provide direct contact information for a parent or faculty liaison who can be reached during the day and after hours in case of weather, traffic, or other problems. Be sure to review this information as the performance date approaches; if the contact person has changed, notify the performer.

Get a cell phone number for the performer; it’s vital for last-minute changes such as a two-hour delay to the start of school. And check with your administrator or grantmaking organization to find out whether the artist needs to complete a W-9 tax form.

Making the Day a Success

At the start of the school year, distribute packets to teachers highlighting the year’s planned enrichment activities along with suggestions for how they might prepare the kids ahead of time. “Advance preparation by teachers makes all the difference in the world,” Schaeffer says. “You can really tell during the question-and-answer period if the children know the fundamentals about the historical character or not. If they do, they can get the depth of the program and character and take their knowledge to the next level.”

A day or two before the performance, call the performer or agency to confirm the schedule and location. Ensure that the performance space is clear, the light bulbs work, and the microphones and other equipment are operating correctly.

On the day of the performance, someone should be on hand to greet the artist and help her with setup by pointing out electrical outlets and bathrooms. Make sure the performer has private rehearsal and setup time. “That’s the biggest problem,” Heflick says. “What is going on in the room when I’m opening cases of my thousand-dollar instruments? If there’s [activity] because the PE teacher didn’t know I needed 30 minutes of prep time for a sound check, that creates lots of problems.”

Be willing to accept direction from the performer. He might want to be introduced a certain way, request that students be seated a certain way, or advise that the performance take place on a different side of the room. “If someone has experience doing programs in hundreds of schools a year, they have more experience than you do,” says Steven Michael Harris, a Lexington, Va.-based performer who teaches about writing.

And though as a parent you have no control over staff behavior, recognize that teachers engaged in the program serve as models for the children. Involving them in the selection process is one way to capture their interest. If the teachers don’t pay attention, neither will the kids.

Online Directories of School Performers

National Storytelling Network

National Performers Directory

School Assembly Directory

National Endowment for the Arts

National Endowment for the Humanities

Association of Children’s Museums

Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators

Children’s Book Council

Author Illustrator Source

Academic Entertainment

The Bureau of Lectures and Concert Artists

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