PORTLAND — Just a few blocks separate Portland High School on Cumberland Avenue and Portland Stage Company on Forest Avenue.

Yet Anita Stewart can count on one hand the number of groups from the high school that have come to see a show in the 15 years she has been the theater’s artistic director.

“It’s a lost opportunity,” she said. “We should be part of their lives.”

A new initiative – maybe the first of its kind in the nation – is intended to make that happen.

The program, called the “Culture Club – Portland,” will allow each of the city’s approximately 7,000 students to attend programs at four participating arts institutions every year. There will be no charge to the students or the schools.

The program is being funded for three years primarily by one anonymous donor who lives in the city.

The Portland Museum of Art, the Portland Symphony Orchestra, Portland Ovations and the Portland Stage Company will collaborate on the program, and each will subsidize it to some extent.

The program will begin in the fall, when students return to school from summer vacation. To prepare for the influx of students, the program is being ramped up over a three-year period.

The organizers plan to serve 50 percent of the school district’s students in the first year, 75 percent in the second year and all students in the third year.

The amount of the anonymous donation is “significant,” but organizers aren’t ready to publicize the amount until details of the program have been worked out, said Aim?Petrin, executive director of Portland Ovations.

“The generosity of this donor has inspired a project that none of us could have created on our own or thought possible,” she said.

Because 50-to-55 percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the program will reach many students who never visit a museum or theater because their families can’t afford it, Petrin said.

Stewart said she doesn’t know of any other city in the nation that has tried such a collaborative approach involving multiple cultural institutions.

The school district doesn’t have any money in its budget to send students to art or cultural venues, said David Galin, chief academic officer for Portland Public Schools. In the past, some schools have sent students to venues by using discretionary funds controlled by individual schools, grant funds or money raised through Parent-Teacher Organizations, he said.

While some schools participate, others don’t, Galin said. He said the new initiative will guarantee cultural events access to all students.

The schools will have to pay transportation costs, but because the program will be offered at no charge, it will free up money for transportation, Galin said.

He said the district’s recently adopted comprehensive plan calls for students to participate in activities beyond academics.

“We think it’s essential that all students have access to the rich culture that our city provides,” he said.

The organizers will soon send schools a brochure that describes the program so they can make plans for next year. Organizers understand that offering free tickets, by itself, isn’t a good enough reason for schools to participate, Petrin said.

“It has to make sense to them and be relevant to them,” she said.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: TomBellPortland