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Tampa High School Students Learn History, 'Hamilton' Style

Woman sings on stage while two classmates hold up signs that say "Common Sense."
Kerry Sheridan
Maria Fernandez, 18, sings about Thomas Paine on stage at the Straz Center as part of the Hamilton Education Program, March 7, 2019

The Broadway musical "Hamilton" won critical acclaim with its modern take on historical figures. As the show makes its way across the United States, students in select cities are getting a chance to learn about the Founding Fathers and perform their own original pieces in the style of Hamilton.

The play recently wrapped up a successful run in Tampa. Before it left, nearly 3,000 students from 29 local high schools packed the seats at the Straz Center to see a Thursday matinee.   

For most, it was the first time they had ever seen any Broadway show, let alone the winner of 11 Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Seeing the performance was a reward for their work in what's known as the Hamilton Education Program, which allows kids to learn about the history of the Founding Fathers much the way the show's creator Lin-Manuel Miranda did: by studying original documents from the period.

These include a love letter from Alexander Hamilton to his fiancee Elizabeth Schuyler, and and a first edition of "The Federalist," which contains essays that form the backbone of American political philosophy.

Maria Fernandez, 18, was among the students who began studying the Founding Fathers about two months ago, before the show came to town. 

Before seeing "Hamilton," Fernandez and two classmates from Jefferson High School in Tampa were among 13 acts chosen to perform before the packed crowd of local students.

Theirs was an original piece - part spoken word, part song - about Thomas Paine, one of the Founding Fathers. He wrote a pamphlet called "Common Sense," which made the case for independence from Britain.

Fernandez said the ideas in "Common Sense" resonated with her.

"It was just the thing I knew the best, and I talk a lot about common sense, just in my day to day life," she said.

The idea of helping high school students make "Hamilton" their own was dreamed up by its star, the Puerto-Rican-born Miranda.

The Hamilton Education Program started in New York City in 2016.

Now, it's offered in select cities across the country where "Hamilton" is playing, to disadvantaged Title-1 eligible schools, where 40 percent or more of the students come from low-income families.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History helped create the curriculum.

"It was very important to the Mirandas, to "Hamilton" and to the Gilder Lehrman Institute that this program be for students that would otherwise be unable to access the musical," said spokeswoman Amy DiChristina. 

Another student who got to share his own creation was 17-year-old Jonathan Peña. He focused on the final moments of Hamilton's life, in 1804, just before the former Treasury Secretary entered a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr.  

Boy sits in theatre seat
Credit Kerry Sheridan / WUSF
Jonathan Peña, 17, was one of the students selected to perform before the matinee of Hamilton at the Straz Center on March 7, 2019

Peña says performing opened his eyes to a world of possibilities.

"Being on stage and performing in front of 3,000 people, it might seem big but really it is just a small step of what you're growing to become and what you are going to, so this just the start of a like a big, a big journey, a big road map."

Since 2016, the Rockefeller Foundation has spent seven and a half million dollars on the Hamilton Education Program. It runs through the end of 2020 and aims to reach 250,000 students nationwide.   

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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