Vanguard University partnership with Arts & Learning Conservatory isn’t just song and dance

Written by Matt Szabo (LA Times)

The familiar tune “Hakuna Matata” wafted out of the multipurpose room at Lincoln Elementary School in Corona del Mar on Thursday afternoon.

Vanguard University sophomore Montana Leyva paused and smiled as she heard the children singing.

“I love hearing their little voices,” she said.

Since October, Leyva has been working with more than 35 Lincoln students on their production of “The Lion King.” The show time of Tuesday afternoon is almost here, and the kids can’t wait to bring the production to life.

Neither can Leyva, who’s a double major in technical theater and business at Vanguard. Director Lizzy McCabe has asked her to help direct and choreograph the show, a welcome addition to her love of the behind-the-curtain aspect of being a stage manager.

Leyva is making the most of a unique opportunity she’s been given through the College Corps program.

She’s one of Vanguard’s first two College Corps fellows participating in a partnership with Costa Mesa-based nonprofit Arts & Learning Conservatory. She will complete 450 hours of community service work this school year through ALC-provided opportunities.

With $700 in monthly payments, plus a $3,000 grant from the state of California when she finishes, it adds up to a total of $10,000 for Leyva for the 450 hours.

The #CaliforniansForAll College Corps grant program places student fellows with nonprofits working to overcome societal challenges related to food insecurity, climate action or, in this case, K-12 education. It spoke to her, as she said her mom and dad are both first responders.

“They made a life through service,” Leyva said. “That was something that was emphasized, and one of the pillars of Vanguard is truth, virtue, service. If anything, I felt a call from my heart and a call from my school to just test it, try out for College Corps.”

Arts & Learning Conservatory director of education Katie Hennen said the nonprofit has had a good relationship with Vanguard in the past; ALC founder and CEO Debora Wondercheck is a Vanguard alumna. But the partnership with College Corps also presents a new opportunity. 

“This partnership is really special,” Hennen said. “We find ourselves at this unique convergence. Our kids are meeting creativity with confidence. On the administrative level, we’re able to connect the classroom to the community. It’s a win to the fourth power. Everybody benefits from it — the school, the community, the families, the kids, the organization and of course Montana, as well.”

According to a 2022 report from SRI Education, nearly 90% of schools in California don’t meet the state funding requirements for arts education. Hennen cited further statistics from the Orange County Department of Education that students who have access and are able to interact with the arts are five times less likely to drop out of school, and four times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree.

“We had a student who was playing Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ at one of our other elementary schools in the Newport-Mesa district,” Hennen said. “She was often late to class and had attendance issues. The second she was cast, she hasn’t missed a day of school since. We talked to the principal, and she confirmed that for us. It really does make a difference. It may not be super-visible to everyone, but it makes a difference to the students in their academic careers.”

Leyva has been having a blast with “The Lion King,” which she said she’s loved ever since she saw the production on Broadway with her mom while in seventh grade. The Lincoln student performers enjoy her upbeat personality.

“She’s really nice,” said Ava Keiser, a fourth-grader who is playing the African red-billed hornbill Zazu in the production. “She loves everybody. She’ll be strict when she has to be strict, and she’ll be nice, too.”

Ava wants to be an actor when she grows up. Leyva will continue working with the next generation as the spring semester at Vanguard begins. 

Her next assignment coordinated by ALC is for a production of “The Little Mermaid” at Title I school Whittier Elementary in Costa Mesa.

“I have an opportunity to practice what I love and to grow in my passions here,” Leyva said. “I’m just so thankful because I couldn’t get this at any other job. I would have never heard of Arts & Learning if not for College Corps. I wouldn’t get to sing ‘Hakuna Matata’ with kids for a job. Not a lot of people can say that they sing and dance for a job, and that wouldn’t have happened without College Corps.”


Posted on LA Times

Thumbnail Image by Don Leach/LA Times Staff Photographer