It's been a tumultuous few months for a year-round arts-magnet school in St. Paul.
Four Seasons Elementary was the only school slated to close under a district-wide strategic plan. The threat of closure brought this community even closer together. Parents and kids banded together and persuaded district officials to keep their school alive.
On Thursday, students who would have had to say goodbye to Four Seasons just had the biggest day of the year, with the all-school annual musical.
This is not your average school play. It's an original production, with 18 tunes and a cast of hundreds. At the final dress rehearsal inside a circus tent, the kids are the stars, the stage-hands, and the tech crews. On risers in the back, pintsize engineers operate the lights and the sound boards.
"I mean, the kids are running the show. Right now while I'm talking to you, they're running the rehearsal," said music teacher Darrell Baggenstoss. He wrote the show with the help of the school's dance teacher.
The plays is based on an Afro-Caribbean folk tale. On the tropical island of Thingamajig, the sun has gone. It's been cast in shadows by a colorful, seven-headed bird. The tale is of how the islanders try to restore sunlight and joy.
Baggenstoss, who helped open Four Seasons 14 years ago, said the desire for students to be part of something larger is what makes the school so special. And the community wasn't just going to let it just fade away.
"It just couldn't end like that. We've worked so hard. When we heard the news, it wasn't like we were trying to be stinkers," Baggenstoss. "It's just that when something is so important to so many people, then you start to realize if your image is going to be 'strong schools, strong communities,' you can't start by cutting a strong community."
That phrase was the name of the district plan that originally called for shuttering Four Seasons due to low enrollment. The school is home to about 350 students, from pre-kindergarten to sixth grade.
After hearing from impassioned parents, the district decided to keep the school open. Four Seasons will get to keep its arts theme, but will move to a different building — the old Longfellow school — next month to make way for a special-education program. Also, it will go from a year-round schedule to a traditional school year.
Backstage, two sixth-graders who snagged lead roles are wait for their cues.
Kaitlyn Vu plays the king. And Samuel Adams is, as he explains it:
"I'm Ganga. I'm like the crazy-shaman-old-witchdoctor person who can tell the future."
Both students say they've benefited from a curriculum that offers choir, theater and dance. Not every kid at Four Seasons wants to pursue the arts seriously, but Vu does. And her teachers say she has the potential to go far.
“...if your image is going to be 'Strong schools, strong communities,' you can't start by cutting a strong community.”Darrell Baggenstoss, music teacher
"It's an important school to me because I was supported here, in my singing and acting. I don't think I would get that at other schools," Vu said.
But both she and Adams are they're sad about the school changing locations. Adams mentions a tree they planted in the garden in memory of their friend, Lucio Satar, who died in the second grade.
"It's sad I have to leave the place because of all the memories me and him have together. We were more than friends. We were like brothers," Adams said.
Most people felt a sense of relief that Four Seasons will live to see another year.
Irene Saponara-Gottwalt was one of the parents who rallied at community meetings to keep the school alive. Her third-grade daughter is in the play, and Saponara-Gottwalt spent the past few days huddled over a sewing machine and a glue gun making costumes. She said the musical is the culmination of a community pulling together. And this year has added significance.
"It's really a celebration of we made it through the chance of getting cut, and we're excited to move to a new building, and excited to continue the tradition that we've had. We're happy. Very happy."