Today we’d like to introduce you to Rachel Harrah.
Rachel, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
In 2010, I was working at Dallas Theater Center when I was approached by a theatre teacher regarding the possibility of filling his upcoming vacancy at Thomas Jefferson High School. Several months later, I walked into room 168 and took a deep breath, dreaming about how I was going to change the world; little did I know how this classroom would impact the entire course of my life.
In 2015, after being honored as the Dallas ISD Secondary Teacher of the Year, I left room 168 to take on my current role as the Director of Theatre and Dance. That same feeling of anxious hope and fearless determination hit me as I placed my things down on my desk. Dallas ISD’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts holds some of the very finest innovators and leaders in the nation and it is my greatest honor to work together to support over 800 teachers who provide our students with high-quality educational opportunities in safe and nurturing spaces.
It has been almost a decade since I began my Dallas ISD journey and I am reminded of the gratitude and uncertainty I felt on that first day of teaching. That sentiment is shared by so many who diligently strive to ensure that our students can not only succeed but thrive in their educational journey. It is my greatest hope that my teachers always know that they have someone in their corner rooting them on. The Fine Arts teachers of Dallas ISD are the most incredible educators, doing the most transformative work, and I am honored and humbled to serve them.
Has it been a smooth road?
Most theatre programs have at least two theatre teachers in order to not only teach theatre but also to teach technical theatre (lighting design, set design and construction, sound design). This requires during school time to build technique as well as after school rehearsal time to take the technique and apply it to production. When I walked into TJ, I was a singleton, teaching six preps (Theatre 1-4, Technical Theatre, and Musical Theatre), in 45-minute increments every single day. I was so grateful when we changed to block scheduling!
When I left Thomas Jefferson High School, the theatre department had over 500 students enrolled in classes and four theatre teachers.
It wasn’t easy to bring drastic change to a department and I don’t hope to make it look like it was a walk in the park. I was given trust, support, advocacy, and the forgiving repetition of information by my appraisers, finance clerks, alumni association, office managers, colleagues, and principal. I had to make the choice to be relentlessly optimistic problem-solver and never negotiate with what was best for students.
I learned more about the power of collaboration when the Fine Arts department produced the first musical in over 25 years than I ever did working professionally. We had zero budget so we had to figure out the policy, the fundraising procedures, the tickets, the costumes, the royalties, the band to play the music, not to mention building a set! It all seemed overwhelming to a first-year teacher but, as I soon found out, with the right people and the right outlook anything is possible.
The alumni association advertised our show, the marketing teacher helped our students design our posters, the students in the culinary arts department made a fancy meal for our student performers and judges, the Science department head made weekly desserts for the students and bought every single shirt of every single show we ever did, the US History lead teacher not only made dinner and brought a cake for opening night but she also came every day during her lunch period to watch the musical theatre class and provide encouragement and feedback, the librarian was a chaperone and helped at the box office. It is important to share all of this (and there is truly so many more people involved) because it truly took the power of an entire school’s faculty, staff, and community to change the narrative of a school.
We’d love to hear more about your organization.
I am the Director of Theatre and Dance for Dallas ISD. I work in the Visual and Performing Arts Department for Executive Director Tim Linley where our work is a vital part of the Teaching and Learning division.
My job encompasses anything having to do with my content areas, from recruiting and retaining the very best theatre and dance educators to providing guidance and feedback for all design and construction dealing with auditoriums, dance studios and black box spaces.
When students take part in Visual & Performing Arts programming in Dallas ISD, they experience touchpoints with our world-class partnerships and stellar programming. Our partners include: AT&T Performing Arts Center (ATTPAC), Texas Black Academy of Arts and Letters, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Dallas Theater Center, Dallas Children’s Theater, Texas Ballet Theatre, Junior Players, Dallas Black Dance Academy, Dallas Winds, Dallas Museum of Art, Dark Circles, Central Market, and many more.
This year, I am incredibly grateful and proud of our new Dark Circles Contemporary Dance Arts-Lab Residency in partnership with the AT&T Performing Arts Center. This residency, taking place at Spruce High School brings the internationally renowned Dark Circles Contemporary Dance Company to have daily open to student rehearsals while providing weekly masterclasses. They are also providing the community with free access to the previews of the performances before they take them for performances in venues such as Hamon Hall at ATTPAC and The Public Theater in New York City. This innovative and ground-breaking program will stand as the first time a professional dance company is housed inside of a public school; providing immediate access to training with professionals that even private schools can’t advertise.
How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
Dallas ISD as a whole can only continue to do great things. As our programs grow, our scores grow, our enrollment grows, we will need to be steadfast in our goal to continue investing in our student learning spaces. I am excited about the opportunities for new and innovative facilities and programs that could become a reality over the next 5-10 years.
It is also my hope to see Theatre being taught in more and more elementary schools. Theatre is so exciting to see in any classroom with a high English Language Learner (ELL) population because it provides immediate access to comprehension through performance. There are also immediate touchpoints in theatre with the incomparable work that Juany Valdespino-Gaytan is doing to implement Social Emotional Learning strategies and curriculum in Dallas ISD. We excited by the prospect of continuing our impactful partnership with the AT&T Performing Arts Center and Disney Musicals in Schools.
Last year, five elementary schools applied and were chosen to participate in this program. They were given the opportunity to produce and perform a musical in the hopes that having the assistance in funding, planning, choreographing, and performing for three years might also give the support needed to propel these schools to establish permanent theatre programs. This year, we anticipate the addition of five more schools to this partnership for a total of ten elementary musical performances. Watching our students dance, sing and act reminds me of the truth that every teacher knows; when a student loves their learning, they will succeed.
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Brian Guilleaux (dancer photo with two dancers)