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Inner City School Students Excel in Shakespeare - 2002-01-23


A Los Angeles teacher says his students are finding success by combining Shakespeare, rock and roll music, and long hours in the classroom. The inner-city students whose accomplishments have brought international attention.

They have performed at Shakespeare festivals around the United States, and in 1999, did a recital and music performance for members of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.

They are known as the Hobart Shakespeareans, and they come from an inner-city school, Hobart Elementary, in a poor immigrant section of Los Angeles.

Rafe Esquith has been teaching the fifth grade class at Hobart Elementary for 17 years. "We have children here from Mexico, Central America, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand. So it's a real good diverse population," he says.

Each year, the students perform a different Shakespearean play. This year, 11-year-old Alex Hernandez, whose native language is Spanish, is rehearsing a scene from Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor.

"What a damned Epicurean rascal is this? My heart is ready to crack with impatience. Who says this is improvident jealousy. My wife has sent to him; the hour is fixed; the match is made. Would any man have thought this? See the hell of having a false woman," he says, reciting a line from the play.

Another fifth grade student, Korean-American Soo Jin Chung, reads from the opening chapter of an American classic, Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn."

"You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he was told the truth, mainly. There was things where he stretched, but mainly he told the truth," he says.

The hours are long and the work is difficult, but Mr. Esquith believes there are no shortcuts to getting a good education.

"I think we've created a fast-food society where we have instant coffee and instant breakfast. We even have instant shopping. You don't even have to leave your home to shop. But there really isn't any instant education. And I think we've gotten away from that. So I think the children need to work longer, harder, and with more discipline than they normally work, and that's how you achieve great things," Mr. Esquith explains.

The Los Angeles teacher says he asks a lot of his students. In addition to Shakespeare and Twain the 11-year-olds read other serious literature, from the autobiography of the black activist Malcolm X to the works of John Steinbeck. Students arrive at their fifth-grade class at 6 o'clock every morning, two hours before the regular school day begins. And they stay two hours beyond the normal dismissal time. Teacher Rafe Esquith says they also come during vacations.

"All those extra hours, those long hard hours, they're able to catch up to their more fortunate peers across town on the West Side," he says.

The results on standardized tests show the approach is working.

"To give you an example, most children in a school like this on standardized tests in reading will score 40 or 50, because English is not their first language. My class's average last year was 91. In math, their average was 96. And that's why these students don't just dream of going to college some day. These students wind up at places like Stanford and Berkeley and Yale, and not because somebody gave them a handout. They earned their way in," he says.

High school students who once were in Mr. Esquith's fifth grade class return to study with him on Saturdays. As they prepare for college, the teacher takes his former students to meet with admissions officers at top universities around the United States.

In his early days of teaching, Mr. Esquith worked at four jobs to finance his class's special activities. But his success in the classroom has received wide attention and attracted benefactors.

The actor Hal Holbrook is a friend and patron. So is the British Shakespearean actor Sir Ian McKellen, who stops by to watch student performances when he comes to Los Angeles. Now, Mr. Esquith may have one of the country's best equipped classrooms. The television talk-show host Oprah Winfrey has provided computers for every child in his class. Others benefactors have donated guitars and a drum set for the class rock and roll band.

And some students who go on to college also help. One who finished Yale Law School incorporated the class as a non-profit corporation to help pay expenses for out-of-town performances.

Upcoming trips for the Hobart Shakespeareans are scheduled for Las Vegas and San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington.

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