May 2014



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Zebra Staff Note:
The Teacher Feature highlights the positive impact or innovative work of a South Dakota teacher each month. If you have a suggestion for a Teacher Feature, contact Ruth Raveling at (605) 773-2593 or

In the span of just 24 hours, Justin Speck got a lot of great news this spring. He became the Section 5 (SD, ND, MN, MO, KS, NE) recipient of the first-ever Heart of the Arts Award from the National Federation of High School Associations, and the Rapid City Public School Foundation named him Educator of the Year. Speck is the Artistic Director of Theatre at Central High School in Rapid City.

When Speck started teaching at Central (his alma mater) 10 years ago, he took over from his own former theatre teacher. The school’s theatre curriculum was already strong, and it has grown under his direction. Drama Club membership has increased from a few dozen to more than 200 students.

Central students can participate in drama in a variety of ways: by taking a class, joining Drama Club, auditioning for a main stage show, or any combination thereof. The curriculum consists of six courses, covering theatre orientation, history, acting, stagecraft, advanced theatre production and advanced stagecraft.

In 2006, Speck founded Advocates for Creative Theatre Students, an achievement that played a big role in his winning the Heart of the Arts Award. ACTS is a booster club that serves the Central theatre department exclusively. The club sponsors two college scholarships annually for students in the Rapid City Area School District. Every three years, the club also helps make possible an international trip. Central students have studied the origins of theatre in Greece and the works of Shakespeare in London. This summer, 40 students and eight adults will learn about opera on a 12-day, nine-city tour of Italy.

Ask Speck why he enjoys teaching theatre and his heart for the arts is obvious: “Oh my goodness, I love teaching theatre. It gives kids an opportunity to develop creative problem-solving skills, to work together toward a common goal with clear deadlines. I like teaching theatre because we’re accepting of everyone. They don’t need a particular set of skills. There’s a sense of family.”

That theatre family is indeed open to everyone. Speck has directed state wrestling champs, varsity basketball players, gymnasts, cheerleaders and more. “Every single year, we will get a couple of star athletes who will be talked into auditioning for a show,” he says. “Without fail, those star athletes will announce, ‘I have one regret about doing this show, and that’s the fact I didn’t do it sooner.’”

At parent/teacher conferences, Speck says he often hears, “I have no idea how you do it, but I had no idea my son/daughter could sing, act, dance...”

So, how does he do it? Speck says, “If you give a student a chance to try in a safe environment, it’s amazing what they can accomplish. They rise to the occasion time and time again.”