When most students step into Rafe Esquith's fifth-grade classroom at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles, they take a leap into another world.
Many of the students, almost all from low-income, immigrant families, study advanced mathematics, often coming to school at 6:30 a.m. to do so. In class, youngsters read books, including The Autobiography of Malcolm X. They have seen actor Hal Holbrook portray Mark Twain in their classroom. During free periods and after school, they learn to play classical guitar and perform full-length Shakespearean plays.
Esquith's students have performed Shakespearean plays under his direction at the Globe Theatre in London and delivered a recitation on U.S. history at the U.S. Supreme Court. Many have traveled around the country and to Europe. Most of Esquith's students complete high school, and some attend Ivy League colleges.
Many people credit Esquith for his students' successes because he squeezes as much as he can into a school day. He even spends Saturday mornings tutoring former students.
"I don't think we expect enough of students," Esquith told Education World. "There are a lot of fabulous young people out there. They just need someone to show them the way."
Esquith's interest in helping youngsters stems from the loss of his own mentor, his father, when he was 9 years old.
"I adored him, and I still miss him," Esquith said of his father. "But I know what it's like to grow up without a mentor -- I know what a difference an extra person in a life can make."
Esquith has filled a similar void in many kids' lives. Esquith said he used to work four jobs to pay for trips and other extras for his students. Since 1992, his assortment of enrichment activities has been incorporated as the Hobart Shakespeareans, a nonprofit organization supported by donations. The Hobart Shakespeareans have picked up numerous sponsors over the years. Publicity about the program and his class has brought attention from professional actors, such as Holbrook, who volunteer to read to students.
Esquith's efforts at guiding children have been recognized at the national level, recently with Oprah Winfrey's Use Your Life Award in 2000. That award earned Esquith another $100,000 for the Shakespeareans.
He also was named Parent Magazine's teacher of the year in 1997 and Disney's Teacher of the Year in 1992.
Esquith's colleagues recognize him for his accomplishments where he teaches, as well. "In 40 years as an educator, I have not seen that many people who want to give that much quality time to young people," Hobart's principal, James Messrah, said of Esquith. "He devotes almost every week of the year to the students. The world wants to be in his class."
One of Esquith's students, Jonathan Lee, 10, who is playing Gloucester in the Hobart Shakespeareans spring production of King Lear, said that he likes Esquith's class because if he makes a mistake, no one laughs at him.
"You get to learn stuff like how to read well and learn other languages and get over stage fright," Jonathan said.
Esquith also has very loyal alumni; former students serve as mentors to the current class and provide assistance with trips and legal services.
Esquith views his efforts as a means for the students, most of whom are children of Central American and Asian immigrants, to have a chance at higher education and career success. The extracurricular programs are open to all students, not just the 34 in his class.
"It upsets me that we say this is a land of equal opportunity," and yet many youngsters lack access to opportunities, Esquith said. "Their families are new to this country, and often they need assistance." After-school programs help make students more aware of the greater world, he said. "It's the street, the TV, or me."
Esquith's after-school Shakespeare program has attracted the most attention recently, even though, as he put, it represents only about 45 minutes out of a very full school day.
About 70 fourth and fifth graders are participating in the Shakespeare program this year; students plan to present King Lear in April. The three-hour production, without costumes and sets, will include music performed by a student band. Students learn the lines by listening to recordings of the play and following along in a text, Esquith said.
"We are shattering concepts we have of kids who are underprivileged," Esquith said, adding that people often compliment the children when they travel for being polite and well behaved.
Steven Blazak, a spokesman for the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the local teachers union, said that he saw the Hobart Shakespeareans perform in 1992 and was very impressed. "It's amazing," Blazak told Education World. "The [students'] acting ability, pronunciation, and the way they know their lines are amazing."
The program has grown tremendously since Esquith started it 16 years ago with five children to share his own interest in Shakespeare's work. "I personally love Shakespeare, and you have to teach things that you love," he said. Students also learn how to work as a team, Esquith added.
Esquith and his students put in long days, beginning with a math session before school that starts at 6:30 a.m. There, students from his and other classes work on advanced problems and algebra.
During recess and lunch period, Esquith gives guitar lessons to about 60 youngsters, and they plan to perform later in the year.
On Saturday mornings, Esquith works with former students who now are in middle school to help them with the math and English skills they will need for the Scholastic Assessment Test. In the afternoon, Esquith holds rehearsal for the student band that accompanies the Shakespeareans.
As a reward for working Saturday mornings, Esquith and his wife take the middle schoolers to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for two weeks in the summer, where they see a variety of plays.
Esquith also takes a group of students every year to visit about 25 colleges across the country. He takes some other students to visit Europe. During the school year, Esquith also takes his own class to Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia for firsthand history lessons.
Blazak noted that though Hobart Elementary School has a number of excellent teachers, Esquith is a rare person. "Very few people have the commitment he has."
Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © 2003 Education World