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C-NS High School’s Team of Theater Directors Honored as ‘Champions of Change’ by New York State School Boards Association

On Monday, December 6, the Cicero-North Syracuse High School (C-NS) theater team of creative directors involved with the ‘Cicero Area Student Theater’ (CAST) program and the high school’s production of an original musical in the midst of a pandemic, was honored by the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA) as Champions of Change. NYSSBA’s honor, which is officially called the ‘Champions of Change for Kids Recognition Program’, celebrates programs that optimize existing resources to address issues of equity, demonstrate strong student academic performance, and introduce unique learning environments that are cutting-edge and future oriented. The recognition is unsolicited and is presented to just a few select districts in NYS throughout the school year. The creative team consists of Kimberly Panek-Edwards (Director), Renee Frontale (Producer), Caryn Patterson (Music Director), and Lisa Stuart (Choreographer).

Pictured above at the December 6 North Syracuse Central School District
Board of Education meeting (from left to right) are: Board President Paul Farfaglia, NSCSD Superintendent of Schools Dan Bowles, NYSSBA
Area 4 Directors Sandra Russo, Kimberly Panek-Edwards, Caryn
Patterson and Renee Frontale. Lisa Stuart was not at the Board meeting. 
Sandra Russo, NYSSBA’s Area 4 Director and the organization’s incoming Vice President, was at the North Syracuse Central School District’s Board of Education meeting on December 6 to publicly present their Champions of Change banner to the C-NS theater’s creative team. In her remarks during the presentation, Director Ruffo spoke about the purpose of the recognition and complimented the C-NS team by saying, “Your program and what happened to your students during the pandemic and how you turned it around for them is amazing.”

North Syracuse Central School District Superintendent of Schools Dan Bowles also spoke about the creative team and thanked them for their dedication to students. He said, “The dedicated team of professionals leading the group worked diligently to provide opportunities for students to continue performing during the pandemic. Our students and the District are lucky to have these kind and caring people.”

“Theater makes us feel human, connected to each other; at least if we don’t feel like ourselves, we can be someone else for a little bit.  This program was so rewarding, not only making something our own but the ideas that came from it and seeing the students shine and grow… and started to see themselves again. It helped us just as much as it helped them!  We love this award more than words can say, we feel honored to be receiving this and want to continue to do programs like this for the kids in the future”, said director Panek-Edwards.

When the world shut down on March 16, 2020, many things changed dramatically and people around the world started missing out on opportunities they would have otherwise had. Students were impacted greatly from those lost opportunities. When brick and mortar classrooms emptied, scholars lost their chance to showcase their knowledge, athletes lost the chance to compete, and performers lost the chance to perform. Hallway banter ceased, desks sat empty, and auditoriums went dark.
Pictured above is the North Syracuse Central School District's 
team of creative directors involved with the ‘Cicero Area Student
Theater’ (CAST) program and the high school’s production of
"This Will be Our Year." The creative team consists of (pictured left to right):
Lisa Stuart, Renee Frontale, Caryn Patterson and Kimberly Panek-Edwards.. 

After having rehearsed “Tuck Everlasting” for months, the theater students were forced to halt their work. During the beginning days of quarantine, the team of creative directors quickly realized how much the students were impacted. They could see how much the students still yearned for human connection and were determined to give that back to them.

In an effort to connect the students, the musical team began holding weekly karaoke nights via Zoom allowing students to express themselves through song, monologue, or just conversation, in a safe and creative way. As the year went on and the shutdown continued, the team realized that their students needed something more than interaction over computer screens at home. The creative team put their heads together and in conjunction with the Town of Cicero, they launched CAST. CAST was a 10-week musical theater program held in person at Driver’s Village while adhering to strict safety protocol. The program allowed students to get back part of what the pandemic had taken away. Caryn Patterson, who is the school’s retired music teacher and long-time musical director, said, “CAST was a wonderful experience for all and it showed us that we could in fact safely and effectively operate meaningful musical experiences for kids during such trying times.”

Seeing their students reinvigorated by the CAST program, the creative team felt that they had to do whatever they could to keep the “stage” lights burning. While COVID restrictions had lessened to some extent, they knew that in-person performances would not be an option and the livestreaming of a full-scale musical production would not be possible. The only solution would be to create an original musical that could then be presented according to safety protocol. And that is exactly what the team set out to do. In just 48 hours, the team managed to write a complete original musical, which they appropriately titled ‘This Will Be Our Year’. “The musical is about a senior’s year in high school, and in a way, we felt giving them back the year they had lost to COVID”, Panek-Edwards said.    

After clearing additional hurdles due to COVID regulations and tight budgets, the team was approved to bring the show to C-NS. The show was livestreamed over YouTube thanks to help from John Nadler, a technology teacher and head of the district’s 4D Productions tech group. Strict COVID protocol were followed and in the end 27 C-NS students, including 18 graduating seniors, had the opportunity to showcase their talents when so many others did not.  Ultimately, the students were able to perform for a limited in-person audience and experience a small piece of normalcy.  The creative team provided a safe, nurturing environment in which students could grow in their knowledge of theater, and return to an activity they loved.

Click here to learn more about “This Will Be Our Year” online or click here to view the performance on YouTube.