Portland Public Schools students fill Merrill Auditorium to hear the Portland Symphony Orchestra perform. Credit: PEF

The headline above is a bit misleading. The anonymous donor actually agreed to pay for every Portland Public Schools student to attend the Portland Museum of Art and performances by Portland Stage and Portland Ovations, in addition to the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

But the headline is pretty long as it is, so we just used the symphony as the ice breaker.

In any event, this anonymous donor put up $100,000 toward this cause in 2012, $150,000 in 2013 and $200,000 each year since, ramping up from a fund that would cover half of all students in Year One to now 100 percent today.

This is in a city where nearly half or more of the student populations of 10 public schools qualify for free or reduced price lunches — a metric commonly used to track childhood poverty levels. Admission costs are legitimate barriers to entry for many Portland students.

This anonymously funded access has been called Culture Club-Portland and is administered through the nonprofit Portland Education Foundation.

“There are kids who live within a couple of blocks of those venues who might never get a chance to see those performances if not through the schools and through something like Culture Club Portland,” said Mary Bennett, president of the foundation board.

Kate Snyder, executive director of the foundation, said that although the program was launched with aplomb four years ago, many in the public aren’t aware of it today. That’s something the foundation is hoping to turn around now, as student participation in the program has plateaued and the aforementioned donor wants to see that his or her money is making a difference.

“There’s no guarantee that money will be here every year,” Snyder said. “We’ve got to work really hard to sustain it.”

But, she said, Portland school leaders believe the model of weaving the public school curricula through some of the state’s most acclaimed cultural institutions is one that could take off nationwide if they can sustain it.

The foundation is seeking $25,000 in funding from the city of Portland for additional financial support for Culture Club-Portland, and the City Council is scheduled to recognize the program in a ceremonial proclamation next month.

Over the program’s first few years, the foundation has tracked participation and gathered feedback from educators and students alike.

The teachers and school administrators have naturally lauded the access to such high quality performances, as well as the in-school workshops the organizations have held in association with those events.

But perhaps the more interesting feedback has come from the children. Here are a few things students have told the foundation over the last three years about their experiences in Culture Club-Portland (most of the student comments listed in their annual reports are anonymous):

  • “My favorite part was when the violin got louder at the end and the conductor made it loud. I wish that I was a conductor so I could make the music loud and soft.”
  • “I liked the scary part where the big top caught on fire. It made my heart beat.” *
  • “I remember the tiger crawling on its belly to avoid the smoke.” *
  • “I could not wait to see the Winslow Homer picture my music teacher’s grandmother was in.”
  • “The stage was very empty and the wood background was really cool. You had to imagine the setting in your head.”
  • “[A]fter watching the show, listening to the actors express Rothko in a different light than before, I think I like his work a lot more. It seems deeper, and more centered than I had realized.”

* The students did not attend a burning circus, but rather saw a theater production in which that was part of the story. 

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.