SALT LAKE CITY — On Feb. 16, fifth-grader Brandon Montes displayed a kind of quiet confidence as he stood on a raised platform in the lobby of the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater, smiling and reading a short speech to a room full of local leaders, including Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and members of the press. As the first recipient of the new city and county sponsored Arts for All program, he looked every bit like an average fifth-grader in his blue T-shirt, but as his speech indicated, his experiences have not been typical.
Four years ago, as a first-grader at Whittier Elementary School, Brandon was unable to write his own name. It was a skill that most of his classmates had mastered, along with other basic reading, writing and math skills. But Brandon couldn’t do most of those things. He didn’t know how.
“He was just failing,” Erica Hammon, Brandon’s current resource teacher at Whittier Elementary, explained to the Deseret News. “So the special-ed teacher for the lower grades here decided to send him to a self-contained unit for academic support.”
As Hammon explained, self-contained units are small classrooms that offer more one-on-one support for students and provide specifically designed instruction to help overcome learning disabilities and provide positive reinforcement for students who struggle in typical classroom settings.
But the self-contained unit wasn’t available at Whittier, so for the next three years, Brandon rode a bus every day to and from Indian Hills Elementary School. He worked hard with his teachers to overcome his struggles with learning, and after three years, he was able to graduate out of the program and return to Whittier for the start of his fifth-grade year.
“I was so impressed with that alone,” Hammon said. “Because students don’t get out of self-contained (units) very often. He works so hard and he has a great attitude about it, even though (school) is still hard for him.”
After seeing Brandon stand confidently on stage in front of total strangers and read a statement about his academic struggles, Hammon said she was proud of how far he has come. It has also been rewarding to see that overcoming those struggles has helped Brandon earn free tickets to the touring production of “The Sound of Music” at the Eccles Theater through the Arts for All program.
With an aim to provide people from low-income situations the opportunity to attend Broadway shows at the Eccles Theater for free, the Arts for All program is focused on expanding arts involvement for populations that are normally not exposed to the arts scene in Utah.
And although the initial round of tickets required students to be nominated by teachers, the continuing program isn't just for students. Salt Lake County residents with a picture ID and a valid SNAP card — or a copy of the current year's free or reduced lunch letter from a school — can apply through the LuckySeat website for the chance to win tickets to Broadway shows at the Eccles Theater.
“We’re excited to allow people (of all ages) to have the opportunity to make memories at the Eccles Theater,” said Lia Summers, the Salt Lake City mayor's office senior adviser for arts and culture.
It was Brandon's hard work and continuing excellence that inspired Hammon to nominate him for the initial launch of the program.
“His scores are going up and he’s just an amazing kid,” Hammon said, explaining that she nominated Brandon in part because she wanted to show him how proud she is of how far he has come and how much he has achieved.
“Math and reading are important … but just getting that belief in (students) that they can go beyond what they originally thought they could is my goal,” Hammon said. “And it’s been exhilarating!”
Brandon is starting to feel the excitement of his opportunity. Later, back at school, he told the Deseret News how much he enjoyed being at the Eccles Theater for the program launch celebration, and his excitement for the upcoming show.
“And I learned something new — that when the orchestra is playing, you can hear music bouncing back off the walls," he said.
Most of Hammon’s students come from low-income families with limited opportunities, and as Hammon grew up in similar circumstances, she said she feels a connection to them, having experienced much of what they have to overcome herself.
“To come from where I came from, in a poor family with low socioeconomic status, we never got to go to places like the Eccles Theater," Hammon said. "And now I work with kids like that all the time.
"I failed my way through school. And when I did finally graduate, I swore I’d never enter a classroom again.”
The irony is not lost on her that the first job she took after graduating was as a paraprofessional in a classroom. From there, with the encouragement of co-workers, she pursued a degree in special education and became the first person in her family to attend college. She has been teaching ever since.Comment on this story
“My goal in life is to help my students believe that they can, and help them overcome their hurdles and be successful,” Hammon said.
Brandon is the perfect example of those students with whom Hammon hopes to make the biggest difference, and his chance to attend the theater is the type of opportunity she hopes more of her students can experience.
“When we went up to the Arts for All thing with the mayor … he just stood up there like this little star," Hammon said. “He knows my support in his excellence and I'm so happy that even though he was nervous for a minute, he got up there and then just shined.”