Many might remember Tony Plana from his many acting roles from “Feo” in the film “Born in East L.A.” to playing America Ferrera’s dad in the sitcom “Ugly Betty,” but many might not know that one of his greatest passions is education.
“We have a horrendous crisis on our hands,” says Plana about the high rate of Latino teens dropping out of school. “Somehow we are not teaching them properly…and we are responsible. We are the educators. We need to find a way that allows them to connect with school in a way that’s not happening.”
The veteran Cuban-American actor tributes all of his success to his education, and he says he wants to pay it forward. For nearly two decades Plana has been working hard to create educational programming for schools in underserved middle and high schools in the greater Los Angeles area. He says his East L.A. Classic Theatre program, which integrates acting programs within school curriculums have proven successful, because it engages students to become avid learners – it connects them emotionally to the school experience.
“Theater teaches you to collaborate and identify with a group – to create and realize something together,” says Plana. “The wonderful feeling of creating something together and sharing it – it’s very powerful…I started East L.A. Classic Theatre in 1995, because I wanted to become part of the solution…I’m going to be producing a one-hour special for PBS, and these are the things I want to talk about. I want to take East L.A. nationally, because [education] is a national problem.”
The experienced father of two and educator of many, says it’s all about connections when it comes to educating youth, and it starts in the home.
“Latino children experience more regression than any other group, because it’s environmental – many are very poor and that’s not conducive to intellectual stimulation,” says Plana who encourages role-playing with parents in school curriculums. “It’s important to educate the parents about this problem. You’re not going to solve the problem, until you solve that problem.”
He says he’s also created a program through East L.A. called “Creciendo Juntos” to empower parents with information.
“You have to get involved in finding out who your kids are and what they need,” says Plana who home-schooled his own two children – whether biological, educational, whatever those needs are. “We teach them not to do things for your children, but make them learn, and parents to become learners themselves. You teach by modeling. Become more educated so you can make more money and raise standard of living. Show your kids how important education is.”
He says it’s important to also adapt teaching techniques depending how your child learns best.
“We use actors as collaborative teachers,” says Plana. “They really bring a whole new dynamic to the process of teaching…Surprise them…The experts agree that once you engage a kid, you can eventually get them to sit in a desk, but first you have to engage them.”
Plana says his program was completely eliminated in L.A.’s unified public school system about three years ago because of budget cuts, but he’s working with the Lynwood Unified School District, as well as West Covina San Bernardino. He says he hopes to bring his program to New York City in October, as well as Maryland, Texas and Florida.
“My intention is to create challenge in the debate of education,” he says.