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Transformational Theater

Highlands Ranch’s Homegrown Arts Education Center Builds Life Skills Beyond the Stage

Highlands Ranch’s own Performing Arts Academy's mission is “Transforming our community and our world through a generation of students who are confident in their self-worth, understand the importance of serving their community, and recognize the value in our individual differences.”

PAA founder Dr. James Ramsey taught middle and high school music in Rochester, New York, before relocating to the Denver area. Directing several youth musicals, he witnessed first hand the inspirational and transformative benefits theater provides for students of all ages. 

After arriving in Colorado, he and his wife Leigh created a drama ministry at St. Luke’s UMC, which quickly became a huge success. In spring 2006, he and his colleagues at St. Luke’s put on a one-week summer camp for youth.  

“Funding cuts were significantly impacting the performing arts programs in the local schools, and I determined there needed to be another creative outlet for students in our area,” says Dr. Ramsey.

Based on the students’ enthusiasm and parent feedback, the program evolved from a musical summer camp to a year-round performing arts program. Dr. Jim, as PAA students call him, created a comprehensive arts education program to “cultivate confidence and self-worth, along with building life skills through performing arts experiences.” 

PAA became an independent 501(c)(3) organization in 2011, with a 20-25% participation increase each year. The 2022 enrollment is approaching 1,300 Pre K – 12th grade students, who participate in 22 different theater productions, 32 summer mini camps, and over 70 fall and spring classes related to acting, singing, dancing and technical theater. Their offerings in technical theater are unique to PAA, which include lighting design, stage makeup, costuming and more. These classes open up PAA to students who don't wish to be on stage, but still want to be involved.

Driven to reach students who otherwise might not have access to performing arts education, PAA launched the Afterschool Outreach program in Title 1 schools. PAA currently offers before and after school programming at three schools in Arapahoe and Douglas Counties, with plans to expand to more schools along the Front Range.   

“Since 2006, PAA has inspired and created transformative experiences for over 8,000 students who desired to learn, perform and grow in a safe and encouraging space, “ says Dr. Ramsey.

Brookings Institute’s 2019 large-scale, randomized controlled trial study found arts education significantly improved “student’s school engagement, college aspirations, and inclinations to draw upon works of art as a means for empathizing with others.” Dr. Ramsey further explains how PAA directly and positively impacts the youth in our community.

“PAA is in the middle of issues that our children and youth are dealing with everyday, whether at school or at home. As part of a production, a class, or a circle of friends, everyone contributes and is an important part of the community.”  He explains the benefits in further detail:

  • Offers students a technology-free environment, where play and creativity is encouraged, social & emotional connections are abundant, and they experience a sense of belonging

  • Fosters an inclusive environment for all students, no matter background, experience or ability, to grow confidence and self-esteem in a community that believes in them. This extends to students who identify as LGBTQ, so they feel welcomed and secure in a safe environment.  

  • Helps foster independence through age-appropriate responsibilities that emphasize teamwork and encourage kids to take risks, fail forward & work through challenges in a supportive environment. 

  • Provides arts education centered on engaging students’ creativity that can be applied to all areas of development, such as confidence in public speaking, compassion when a friend is struggling, and treating each other with respect despite differences.

To truly understand the benefit, Dr. Ramsey shares this story from a staff member, based on direct feedback from a parent and student:

“During one of PAA’s after-school outreach programs, I sat with a student in the principal's office and told her she couldn't continue in the production, due to her poor behavior choices. The student’s response was, "Everyone gives up on me.” I looked her in the eye and told her “I’m not giving up on you, but you need to make some serious changes before you can come back to PAA.” The decision was devastating because the acting was clearly her outlet. Shortly after that meeting, this young girl was suspended from school. 

“We decided to give her a second chance to enroll in 'Lion King,' a show she desperately wanted to be part of. We conveyed to her and her parents that there wasn’t room for poor choices. The brilliant thing is, that she showed us that she was worthy of a second chance. She was one of the most prepared students in the auditions and received a leading role. She gave it everything she had, made new friends, and was kind and respectful to everyone. This young lady continues to amaze and is becoming one of our leaders. Having this creative outlet gives her a safe place to be, of which we may never know the full impact. What I see fills my heart full of joy.

“Further, the staff member observed: “PAA offered an environment where she felt respected, valued and encouraged to reach her full potential. A place where she found the courage to heal. PAA is the center that keeps kids in balance. While home/school life can throw them off balance, PAA is a hub of stillness. Thank you for offering this incredible center for me and to children who want to know their worth and their full potential.”

PAA frequently receives feedback from parents, such as the following (names changed):

“PAA has undoubtedly changed the course of our lives. Susan is shy. She is introverted. She is an only child, thus often confused by the social dynamics of children her age. Your program has encouraged her to blossom on and off stage. Susan sees herself as a leader. She is confident to share her ideas. She understands the benefits of hard work and risk-taking. We cannot thank you enough, not only for starting your performing arts program but also for maintaining it under financial duress, self-doubt and all the other uncertainties.”

 “Sarah has developed a tremendous amount of confidence. She has always had a bit of anxiety but being on the stage and in practice has given her so much! She absolutely loves the staff and the other kids. The day Annie (the musical) was over, she dug right into her audition material for Seussical. Her heart is full of love for this program!”

And taking the final bow, this impactful letter from a student regarding their experience with PAA during the pandemic. This is the reason PAA does what they do. 

“I wanted to let you know I’ve never felt more safe or welcome at a place than I have at PAA. You and the directors at PAA have given my friends and me so much. The last year and a half have been so hard on everyone, and the loss of our theater lives was really hard.  But you and every one of the adults at Performing Arts Academy dug deep and found ways for us to continue to do what we love and grow our skills and dream new dreams. This summer is one I will always remember because it made me feel passionate and alive again.

“Thanks for not giving up on us, and many thanks to every adult who said we could when we thought we couldn't; it makes all the difference.”

To see PAA’s fall classes and performances, visit paacolorado.org