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Staging a benefit concert is elementary for sixth-grader

VERGENNES — It’s not unusual for Vergennes residents to stage benefit concerts at the Vergennes Opera House. For example, Main Street innkeeper Bill Walsh brings his former New York stage colleagues to the Little City annually for the well-received “Broadway Direct” shows.
And at least one student, Vergennes Union High School’s Matteo Palmer, now a senior, organized a 2012 event with local musicians to help fill the theater’s coffers.
Still, the May 9 opera house benefit concert featuring a cash bar and three local acts — The Benoits, an acoustic duo who play classic rock; the debut of Lemon Fair, a five-piece rock band fronted by singer Lori Towle Case; and The Would I’s, who offer power-pop — will mark a first for the historic opera house.
Although the concert organizer, like Palmer, will soon graduate, it will not be from VUHS, but from Vergennes Union Elementary School.
The concert is the brainchild of 6th-grader Addie Brooks, who is organizing the event as part of a new VUES program for 5th- and 6th-graders.
According to VUES Principal June Sargent, Brooks and her parents, Addie herself is benefitting from the effort as well as the city theater.
“It’s been fun to watch her grow more confident as she’s worked on the project, more confident talking to people. She’s been very determined,” said Addie’s mother, Tara Brooks. “She was really determined this was the event she wanted and she was willing to make it work no matter how hard she had to try to get it.”
Addie at one point needed some help from father Josh Brooks, a Ferrisburgh Central School teacher and member of The Would I’s, when one scheduling issue became complex, but she said that was part of the learning experience.
Asked what she had learned, she said, “How to communicate better, because of the snag that happened, and adding people in, because I was doing it all on my own. There was a little help from my teachers. But other than that I was doing it all on my own, figuring out how to email people, getting all the emails.”
PREPARING THE PATH
Sargent said Brooks’ concert project is unique among those proposed by the school’s older students, who since the fall have had a 50-minute block once a week to devote to service-learning or academic projects of their choice.
However, Sargent said, Brooks’ experience while working on and completing her project is not unusual. She referred to the “the confidence the students have developed” and the “growth they have shown” in the course of the school year while fundraising for the humane society or the local food shelf, or exploring in depth academic topics that range from the development of the atomic bomb to the story of Cleopatra.
“They know now they can go out and talk to a total stranger for a legitimate cause,” Sargent said. “Everybody chose something that offered some kind of personal challenge and offered some sort of opportunity for developing personal skillsets.”
Sargent started the new program with an eye to VUES students’ future at Vergennes Union High School. Middle school students there now are required to produce self-directed “Capstone” projects that require them to explore subjects in depth. VUHS is also working toward a system in which all students will be required to demonstrate mastery of subject material through Performance Based Graduation Requirements (PBGRs) in order to receive their diplomas.
“The concept was to start getting the 5th- and 6th-graders more ready for the independent learning experiences that they’re going to see from grades 7 through 12, starting with Capstone in grades 7 and 8 and then the PBGRs in grades 9 through 12,” Sargent said. “So it’s to get a little flavor of what it takes to explore something on your own and take it through all the way to the end.”
To do so, Sargent said she not only set aside the block, but gave 5th- and 6th-grade teachers Elaine Pentaleri, Joe Samaratoni, Rose Wenzel and Nick Brindisi freedom to make the new program work.
“I left it up to the 5th- and 6th-grade teachers to break the students up however they wanted to and just said this is an opportunity for kids to explore projects in further detail, anything they’re interested in, and take it as far as they can take it,” she said.
Sargent said the entire process has been productive, especially as she and the teachers watch students deal, as did Addie, with inevitable hurdles.
“It’s been great to watch the kids say, ‘We want to do this,’ and then they realize it’s just not as simple as doing that. It’s a growth process. It’s communication. It’s the planning stages that really need to be thought out well to fulfill whatever the project is,” she said.
So many students wanted to raise money for different causes VUES had to start keeping track.
“We actually have a calendar where kids schedule dates so the bake sales didn’t conflict with each other,” Sargent said.
‘LOVE FOR MUSIC’
Scheduling a date proved to be Addie’s biggest challenge. After choosing three local bands from her list of a half-dozen, she had to find a date that worked for all of them as well as for the theater. That took about 20 emails and a text, she said.   
“The hardest part was probably getting a date,” said Addie, who also arranged for Bar Antidote to set up a cash bar on May 9.
The challenges particular to show business also got in the way, according to her father.
“One of the bands that was in her original vision broke up over the winter, so she had to make some adjustments on the fly,” Josh Brooks said.
But there was never any question that it would be at the opera house. Tara Brooks, now the director of the Vergennes Partnership, once had a similar role for the opera house, but left when funds ran low. Addie spent many hours selling concessions, setting up chairs and attending events there, and said she appreciates what the theater does for the city.
“It attracts tourists, and not only tourists but a lot of people in Vergennes, to come out and be together. And I think that helps the community,” she said.
Addie also takes voice and piano lessons and plays the flute, and has performed herself at the theater a half-dozen times. Appreciation for music cemented the plan for a benefit concert.
“Because of my love for music and my dad’s love for music, I thought a concert with local bands would be really fun,” Brooks said.
Other chores included designing a poster and creating a save-the-date message that has been or will be posted on Facebook, the opera house website and Front Porch Forum. Still to be done is putting up posters, hosting the event and cleaning up afterward.
Addie said she will be “excited and relieved” when the big night comes.
“There’s been a lot of benefits for the opera house. I’m hoping this one really helps,” she said.
And she said most of her peers have found their projects just as rewarding as she has found hers.
“At the beginning of the year we were like, ‘This is going to be fun.’ And I think everyone still feels that way,” Brooks said. “Because it counts toward our grades, I think a lot of people are working hard on it, which is good.”
Josh Brooks put on his teacher hat when contemplating what Addie had learned and the value of the VUES program. He said he believes in “involving children in real-world projects on every level” through their graduation. 
“As a parent, I want to see my kids spending at least half of their school time doing work and making connections in a meaningful context. For Addie, this work was not just challenging, but it also had real meaning,” he said. “I’m so grateful that my children are in a school system that is moving towards not just project-based graduation requirements, but meaningful, integrated work on all levels.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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