Last week, Winston School students rocked out with the "Little Shop of Horrors" musical, the school's first show to come out of their summer art academy.
Students acted and sang, as well as built their own sets, made their own costumes and did all the technical crew jobs such as lighting and sound. They performed matinees and evening shows on the school's Ninth Street campus in Del Mar, and grew into the show with each performance.
"The parents were just blown away, " academy coordinator Jeff Kozlowski said.
Kozlowski said many of the parents said they didn't believe their child was capable of taking on a starring role, but after seeing them on stage, they were grateful that the academy had allowed them to do just that.
"Some of the students never had the courage to stand up in front of an audience before," Kozlowski said. "It was fabulous to watch."
Since 1988, the school has catered to students with learning differences such as dyslexia, ADD, ADH and the autism and Asperger's syndrome spectrum. Families have moved from the Midwest and East Coast to attend Winston - one student rode a train for more than an hour each day from Long Beach to come to school.
"Kids who have struggled with learning begin to feel like everybody's given up on them," Headmaster Mike Peterson said. "We look at ourselves as a place where we really believe in the child and send them off to a hopeful future."
To ensure that students don't fall through the cracks, class sizes range from eight to 10 students and math classes have a 4-to-1 student-teacher ratio.
Winston School graduated 23 seniors in June, its largest class ever and possibly one of the most successful. Peterson said 21 already have plans for college and half of them are going to four-year schools, some on scholarships.
A very impressive 98 percent of the students passed the California exit exam for high school seniors.
Dan Peragine, who has taught visual arts and digital media at the school for 20 years, oversaw the art direction of the play.
"I was totally impressed with the kids," Peragine said, noting that they attacked every task in a "stellar" way.
He said the art program is very strong at the school, giving them a creative outlet to express themselves.
"Art and music are a form of literacy," Peragine said. "It's a viable component for learning, and it needs to be integrated into the curriculum."
Music teacher Matt Curreri started the music program five years ago and has watched it grow. Instruments have been added, a girls rock band club was started and new talents have been discovered.
"Nearly everyone here walks around with a guitar," Curreri said.
Curreri assisted in getting the accompanying band for "Little Shop" ready to go - students who had never touched an instrument before were playing in the band. First-time singers were also finding their voices on stage.
Some were also first-time actors, such as senior Tom Pisapia, who tackled the role of Seymour, the shopkeeper who grows a bloodthirsty plant.
"He shined like crazy," Curreri said of Pisapia's performance.
Pisapia, the newfound actor, has been at Winston since the fourth grade.
"I came from a school where no teacher would tell me how to do things," Pisapia said. "I was the kid in the classroom with my hood over my head. I wouldn't talk to anyone, and I would always go home angry."
Pisapia said the Winston School has allowed him to open up to people and discover his passion for filmmaking through the school's activity club. Teachers could take the time to explain things to him and he can go home happy.
"The experience here has been truly magical - it's amazing what they do here," Pisapia said.