District 113 appoints musical theater veteran to direct Focus on the Arts

Township High School District 113 on Tuesday announced that a Deerfield High School graduate, mother of a Highland Park High School student and - central to the cause - a musical theater actress and artistic director will lead its Focus on the Arts program.

In a special board meeting Sept. 6, the board of education appointed Tamara Jenkins to serve as the program's director.

Jenkins' burgeoning résumé includes more than 30 years as an actress on- and off-Broadway and regionally after she graduated magna cum laude in music from the University of Illinois.

In 2009, Jenkins founded The Harbor Lights Theater Company in Staten Island, where, as artistic director, she produced 29 Equity productions featuring scores of award-winning Broadway and Hollywood actors.

Crucial to her hiring by District 113, approved Tuesday along with an $80,000 salary, Jenkins has nonprofit savvy, led The Harbor Lights education program, and produced intensive two-week and yearlong musical theater programs.

District 113 said these programs provided 100% student-acceptance rate into schools such as the Boston Conservancy, the Manhattan School of Music, New York University and Boston University.

As a performer, she's sung in Carnegie Hall, acted opposite Richard Chamberlain in a revival of "My Fair Lady," been the featured vocalist alongside jazz luminaries Wayne Shorter and Larry Coryell, and has performed for presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, among many highlights.

As an artistic director, Jenkins' honors include an "Unsung Hero" award by the Nonprofit Association of Staten Island and a "Woman of Distinction" citation by the New York State Women.

"I am thrilled to be back in District 113 at this pivotal time to serve as the Focus on the Arts director. We are so lucky in District 113 that our students, families and community are avid supporters of the arts, with many choosing to pursue the arts in a professional capacity. There is so much opportunity in the arts for students who wish to pursue that path," Jenkins said in a statement submitted to the board.

"For the students who have other goals, becoming an avid admirer of the arts is just as important in creating well-rounded human beings. The arts provide an avenue for expression, healing, connection, and provoke thought and discussion. That is vital in our community right now.

"I look forward to working with all stakeholders to make Focus's spring 2023 a success," said Jenkins, who succeeds Jody Weinberg in the position.

Focus on the Arts started in 1964 at Highland Park High School, but never at Deerfield, until now. It initially spanned four days, in which usual classwork was paused and students attended classes, exhibits, lectures, demonstrations and workshops delivered by professional visual, performing and communication artists, and also by those behind the scenes.

Parents and community members also could attend events, some held after school. Current security concerns will have only students attend the daytime offerings in 2023.

Over the years, Focus on the Arts has been shortened. The last time it was held, in 2019, it was a two-day event. COVID-19 restrictions canceled Focus in 2021. The recent schedule also saw regular learning in the morning and afternoon hours, with Focus presentations held in the middle of the school day, plus evenings.

Other than probably being held in April, exactly how the 28th rendition of Focus on the Arts will look is to be determined. A big, inclusive change going forward is it will be brought to Deerfield High School as well.

"We are so pleased to announce Tamara's appointment," District 113 Superintendent Bruce Law said on Tuesday.

"She has a wealth of experience in the arts, both as a professional artist as well as a producer and director managing large-scale events and productions. In addition, she has extensive experience in preprofessional training for students wishing to pursue the arts in college and as a career, which means all of our students will benefit from Tamara's expertise.

"She is well-prepared to run a beloved event like Focus, including expanding it for the first time to include Deerfield High School," he said.

"As the board has said, the board expects a robust Focus for many years to come that is fully inclusive of all students, and in conjunction with fundraising and grant writing, the board expects to provide financial support for it."

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