Curtains for Mt. Hope theater program?

School administration proposes cutting theatre director position

By Ted Hayes
Posted 5/7/21

Mt. Hope High School theatre director Nick Mendillo is fighting for the program's life, and his job, after he was surprised to learn Thursday evening that Supt. Jonathan Brice has proposed …

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Curtains for Mt. Hope theater program?

School administration proposes cutting theatre director position

Posted

Mt. Hope High School theatre director Nick Mendillo is fighting for the program's life, and his job, after he was surprised to learn Thursday evening that Supt. Jonathan Brice has proposed eliminating his position to help bridge a $2.3 million budget shortfall this coming school year.

The proposed cut had not previously come up when district officials talked about potential staffing cuts across the district. It was first presented to members of the Bristol Warren Regional School Committee's budget subcommittee Thursday evening, who later voted 2 to 1, with chairwoman Sheila Ellsworth opposed, to approve it. The full slate of cuts will be reviewed and possibly voted on by the full school committee Monday evening.

It didn't take long for word to get out Thursday night that Mr. Mendillo's position is one of the potential cuts. By Friday morning, more than 900 people from across the state and beyond had signed an online petition to save his position.

Mr. Mendillo said Friday that he was floored to hear his job is in jeopardy. He said he'd never had any conversations with administrators about his future, and in conversations this year with school and administration, "I was assured that Dr. Brice and (Mt. Hope principal Dr. Deb DiBiase) were very adamant that they were not eliminating theatre, which ultimately meant they are not eliminating me."

Apart from fears about his own future, he said the move to eliminate his position will essentially be the end of Mt. Hope's program, one of only five full high school programs in the state and in his opinion, the best.

"What's the term, a death knell?" he asked. "It's devastating."

Mr. Mendillo, who is dually certified to teach theatre and English, came to the district in 2018, following the retirement of longtime theatre director Carol Schlink and the stewarship of Britney Verria, a Mt. Hope graduate who led the prorgram for a couple of years. Under his tenure, Mt. Hope rose in the ranks of the state's theatre programs. The program won the most recent Rhode Island Drama Festival held in 2019, and he believes that if the Covid-19 pandemic hadn't canceled last year's festival, "we would totally have won. We have great kids."

Though he said he worries about his future, he is sad that turning the program from a full curriculum to essentially an unofficial club will hurt scores of kids who have found an outlet, acceptance and a path to the future in the arts here.

"I don't want to be dramatic, but I am the drama teacher," he said. "I have kids that truly do not feel welcome anywhere in the school except in my room and their cohorts. We have a lot of kids that are going to school for science and other STEM-type courses, who need theatre as their outlet creatively."

Apart from running Mt. Hope's theatre productions, Mr. Mendillo teaches several sections of theatre classes and was also working to implement a film-making course, which would run over the summer before becoming a full part of the curriculum next fall. Grants to get that program off the ground have to date totaled $8,600, with $5,000 coming from the Bristol Warren Education Foundation (BWEF).

That film course has been well-received by students who, while interested in drama, might not want to take the stage in front of an audience. On Friday, many of them took to the Internet to protest, and Mt. Hope High School students are spreading "Save the Mt. Hope Masqueraders," an online petition to save Mr. Mendillo's job, and the program.

"We’ve always been swept under the rug," wrote Mt. Hope student Jeffrey Gonzalez. "We literally won Rhode Island drama fest. What ever we do simply feels like we don’t matter. This school is said to be a fully rounded school with every opportunity a student can wish for but quite frankly can’t live up to that."

"You have to keep the theater department," wrote Mt. Hope graduate Kristin Brzozowy. "So many lives have been shaped and changed because of this program. I could not act, but never felt once left out and made memories and friends I’ll cherish for years after graduating."

Part-time?

At Monday night's meeting, school committee members were informed by administrators that there is a possibility that Mr. Mendillo's position could be cut to part time for this coming year, using one-time only Covid-related funds from the federal government to fund it. But there is still a question of whether using those funds for that purpose is allowable, and there is no guarantee similar funding will be available the following year.

In any case, Mr. Mendillo said, that salary reduction is not enough to keep the program in its present form.

"Three-fifths of my salary is not a living wage," he said. "It' unfair."

In its present form, "we're a theatre community. there's a full curriculum that's approved by the state. There are national standards that we abide by and the kids are learning life skills that they can't learn anywhere else. They are going to lose that."

Mr. Mendillo said he is spreading the word to his friends and colleagues in the Rhode Island educational and theatre communities, asking them to voice their support for Mt. Hope's program. And he is encouraging them to contact members of the school committee and Mt. Hope and district administration.

"We're trying to build something good," he said. "We are contacting students, parents, former students, theatre groups across Rhode Island. We're pulling out all the stops. We want people to tell (administration) why theatre is so important for the community, and that it should be supported."

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