When Princeton’s McCarter Theater comes alive with the sights and sounds of “A Christmas Carol,” five young students from Trenton’s Sprout U School of the Arts will be on the stage. Sprout’s participation in the seasonal favorite allows its students to hone their acting skills in the community ensemble and other roles and imbues the production with an expansive community spirit.
Seeing her students through auditions, callbacks, and casting is routine for Sprout director Danielle Miller-Winrow. But she believes that the community acting emphasis at Sprout helps students with confidence, presentation skills and focus.
This past September she took 17 Sprout students to audition at McCarter, as she has taken a number of students since 2015. Ten excited students were called back and in addition to the five in the children’s ensemble and a ninth grader in the community ensemble, several are assigned named roles including Sprout teacher Chandler Miller as Christmas Present.
“They yelled, they screamed, there were some tears,” Miller-Winrow says of the students when she told them. (The Dickens classic, adapted by David Thompson and directed by Adam Immerwahr, will be performed December 10 through 29.)
This is not a once-a-year seasonal event for Sprout, however. Throughout the year Sprout students are well-represented on additional local stages and beyond. Six were in the ensemble of Tim Rice’s and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” presented by the Yardley Players in November at Kelsey Theater on the campus of Mercer County Community College. The next audition is for Disney’s “Frozen Jr.” presented by Tomato Patch Workshops.
To Miller-Winrow, who is completely hands-on, down to driving the students back and forth to rehearsals, everything is a learning experience, and part of her role is she is to give Sprout students the opportunities. “When you help them succeed, you have to be there 365 days,” she says.
Students at the school, based in North Trenton, tread not only on area stages, but in the City of Trenton and the region itself. The concept of classrooms without walls extends to the Trenton Public Library and some programs at the College of New Jersey. “Experience is everything,” said Miller-Winrow. “We have to show students that other places exist, places they can get to on their own with public transportation. They are learning the world around them.” The tireless Miller-Winrow is always pursuing new opportunities.
Departing from the Trenton Transit Center, Sprout students traveled to the Juilliard School, a New York City performing arts conservatory, last spring. And thanks to an anonymous donor, 19 students flew to the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles and made it to the second round of a competitive K-pop (Korean pop) dance festival. Korean culture and language are taught at the school. Several students recently returned from a late September trip to an Annandale, Virginia, Korean festival.
“Some had never been out of Trenton,” says Miller-Winrow, recalling how some students were awed looking out the plane window on the way to Los Angeles.
While new performing arts experiences are part of Sprout’s mission, Sprout is bustling on a daily basis. Youngsters with the requisite yellow shirts and navy skirts or pants dot the hallways of the school building at East Paul Street. The youngest “students” are in day care at six weeks, and the oldest are in high school. Currently there are 100 students, 22 of them kindergartners. Sprout uses a home school curriculum (“and the world”), which is academic, using “the strength of the arts to engage students,” Miller-Winrow says. Sprout has community partners, like Artworks, which sends in an artist to the lower grades. Middle school students spend time at Artworks itself. High schoolers learn art history there.
Dance is taught by Trenton dancer, choreographer, and teacher Nathaniel Turner. Miller-Winrow’s aunt, Sarah Dash, a singer and actress, conducts vocals. The school offers religious studies, math, science, French, Korean, and Latin. The school nurse teaches health and wellness. The curriculum follows the state common core standards, says Miller-Winrow.
The school started small putting on some Broadway shows and revues. St. James Catholic Church allowed use of its building, from which it now leases space. The roots of Sprout go back to 1988 in Columbia, Maryland, where Miller-Winrow lived with her late husband, who was a nuclear engineer and entrepreneur. There she substituted for a daycare provider and earned a certification from a community college. She started her own day care with four children, and, typical of her “all in” personality, ended up with 40 infants and toddlers.
Later she ran a day care in Trenton, where her husband was able to take care of his parents. Her day care center, she says, was different because it had a curriculum. She began Sprout in 2008, and her husband was her biggest supporter, a best friend who “breathed and lived Sprout.” In 2014 she was widowed. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue the journey,” she recalls. “I still look for guidance from him.”
But with the support of other teachers, she continued. “I found solace in the classroom. I needed to be with children.”
The school became a private school in 2011, and in 2018 she and others began to more vigorously market Sprout. Many students are referred, and there is a good word of mouth in Trenton, she says.
Miller-Winrow, 53, grew up in Trenton and Lawrenceville, a graduate of Lawrence High School, where she worked behind the scenes in the theater program. Her mother, Diane, who works in the Sprout office, worked in finance, but wanted to be an educator and had worked in a pre-school. Her father was a businessman and an ordained pastor who directed a senior center in Baltimore, Maryland. She said he is planning to help with the school, possibly connecting youngsters with senior citizens.
This is the first year Sprout has what she refers to as a “hybrid high school,” where the students study partially online, partially in the classroom, and partially at area sites. They have learned history at the Old Barracks Museum and completed a gardening project at the governor’s mansion, Drumthwacket, in Princeton. Students also have worked with the Trenton Circus Squad for a performance of the musical “Tarzan” and used resources at the library and Mercer County Community College. Miller-Winrow is searching for more resources, as she dreams of having her own children’s theater and dormitories for students.
Sprout’s fees are on a sliding scale, at $5,780 a year and $110 a week. Other community partners help with program like a food drive for families.
“There is school choice between public and charter and private,” Miller-Winrow explains. “We don’t turn away anyone. I do everything from the heart.”
Miller-Winrow’s heart was in a recent Sprout U audition at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City. The group took a 4:57 a.m. train from Trenton, and their choreographer was in New York to get a spot in the audition line. They competed at night on October 9 and came very close but did not win.
“They are competitive, but experience trumps all,” she says. “I tell them, if it doesn’t happen, we are going to keep going. There will be other experiences.”
Sprout U School of the Arts, 27 East Paul Avenue. 609-989-0269 sproutuschoolofthearts.org.