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Sharing the spotlight

When some of the region’s most talented young actors invite you to join them on stage, you go. Just before the curtain came up on Rock Ridge Performing Arts’ production of The Addams Family over the weekend, the director announced “Danielle Nadler, please come to the stage.” The students and faculty had chosen to give me their annual Rise Forward Award. I felt honored and humbled, and the cake was delicious and the students were encouraging. But the best part was it reminded folks, including me, why community journalism is worth embracing and preserving.

Our reporting at Leesburg Today a few years ago, coupled with determined faculty at Rock Ridge High School, helped make it possible for every high school student in eight Northern Virginia school districts to earn college credits through dual enrollment courses tuition free.

Northern Virginia Community College had been charging about $145 per class. When a second, much smaller college, Richard Bland, came in to provide dual enrollment courses to Rock Ridge High School students free of charge, our coverage highlighted how the local school system was already covering the cost to provide these classes, from the teachers’ salaries to the classroom supplies and utilities. NVCC was actually making a decent profit off of each enrolled high school student; not only was the college charging tuition for a service the high schools were providing, it also received state money based on the number of how many high school students it enrolled. NVCC actually filed a formal complaint with the state to try to keep Richard Bland College from providing free dual enrollment courses to Loudoun high school students. They lost that turf war and have since made their courses for high schoolers free.

Rock Ridge’s most recent graduating class earned 3,360 free college credits, and many of those are students in its theater program.

Wowed by their talent displayed on stage—and back stage—Friday, I asked several of the student performers during intermission what their plans are after high school. Most have their sights set on pursuing careers in the entertainment industry, from costume and set design, to choreography, acting and dancing. One of the leads in the play told me she applied to 17 colleges, with plans to pursue a bachelor of fine arts. And every one of those students will start out their college career ahead of most of their peers, with several credits under their belt. Really the kudos should go to the students who’ve stepped up to the challenge and their teachers, who’ve been outspoken advocates for making college more affordable and attainable for more young people.

Rock Ridge drama teacher and director Anthony Cimino-Johnson told me in an interview earlier this year, “People are asking how do we create the next generation of not only entertainers but technology and business leaders. It’s by flexing their creative and innovative muscles early. We do that every single day in theater class.”

Let’s just say, this isn’t your typical high school drama club, and I’m thankful I’ve had a chance to shine a spotlight on it.

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