When he arrived at Salt Lake City’s Whittier Elementary School as a second-grader, Brandon Montes couldn’t spell his name or read three-letter words.

Now, the 11-year-old fifth-grader not only has earned his way out of a full-time special-education program and into regular classes in most subjects, he finds enjoyment in a range of topics as diverse as times tables, chemical reactions and … musical theater? That’s a new one, actually.

Montes’ effort and dedication in the classroom inspired Whittier resource teacher Erica Hammon to nominate him to be the first beneficiary of the Arts for All program, a joint Salt Lake City-County initiative launched in mid-February that provides residents with low incomes with free tickets to Broadway performances at the Eccles Theater.

Montes won, so he and three family members will be attending “The Sound of Music” this Friday night.

“I was surprised! Then I went home and I told my mom and my sister, and they were surprised, too,” Montes said of learning the news. “I keep on talking about it because I am so excited.”

In addition to “The Sound of Music,” other confirmed titles include “Riverdance,” “Hamilton,” “Jersey Boys,” “Daniel Tiger” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”

“The Eccles Theater is a place where families can experience excellent shows and make memories while doing it,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams. “Arts for All creates an opportunity for more people to be able to take in a show at the Eccles.”

(Photo courtesy of SLCTV) Brandon Montes, center, an 11-year-old student at Whittier Elementary, is joined onstage by (from left) Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, Salt Lake County Council Member Max Burdick, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, and Salt Lake City Council Member Chris Wharton, and is presented with a symbolic ticket as the first recipient of the Arts for All program.

People like Montes, for instance.

He was so far behind in school when he first came to Whittier, “It was alarming and concerning,” Hammon said. It was equally apparent, though, that his struggles were not for lack of effort.

Many students in his situation are transferred to a special-education program at Indian Hills Elementary, with the promise that if they put in the work to reach certain benchmarks, they can return to regular classes.

After three years, Montes did exactly that. He can’t help but marvel at the progress he’s made.

“I couldn’t write my name or do math or read. But I learned how,” Montes said. “You feel pretty good. It feels good to feel smart.”

Hammon is similarly proud of him.

Now in her seventh year at Whittier, and her 18th in the Salt Lake City School District, she’s particularly invested in students like Montes because she can identify with the issues they’re having in class.

“I failed my way through school. I always felt I was never that smart. [And] I never had special education available to me,” Hammon said. “When I actually graduated [high school], I left believing that I’d never enter a classroom again.”

But, after working as a paraprofessional in the district for a number of years, she was encouraged by a teacher to go to college, get her degree and become a teacher. “I did eventually graduate,” she said, “and it was every bit as hard as I thought it was going to be.”

That experience not only gave her the confidence to pursue other endeavors she’d previously thought beyond her reach (she’s written a pair of books and has a third in the works), but also gave her the perfect perspective to work with kids in the resource program.

“Whatever the mind can conceive, you can achieve, if you just step forward,” she said. “I love inspiring people to overcome their hurdles.”

And she’s seen that in Montes.

Hammon acknowledges that not every student in a similar situation ultimately succeeds. What set Montes apart from many, she said, is that “he’s willing to work hard. … The process is slow and grueling, but he’s worked.”

Meanwhile, he’s still a bit awestruck by all the attention foisted upon him. He and Hammon went to a news conference to meet McAdams and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, expecting him to be among a number of students being recognized. But it was just him. He also got a tour of the theater and was particularly excited at the chance to go onstage.

“It’s pretty big!” he noted.

Friday, he’ll be in the audience. Never having attended a play or musical before, he’s not sure what to expect, but, “I’m excited. I just want to see how it goes.”

In the meantime, he’s got a bit of advice for other students who may be struggling: “Work hard and don’t give up.”

About Arts for All

• The program will offer an average of 25 tickets to each Broadway event through a random drawing.

• The program is funded by a 50-cent fee on all tickets sold at the Eccles Theater, with the fees and program managed by the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts. All funds collected are spent in purchasing and distributing program tickets.

• To be eligible to enter the drawing for tickets, Salt Lake City and County residents must receive SNAP benefits or be eligible for free or reduced lunches.

• Registration for the drawing can be done online at luckyseat.com/arts-for-all/soundofmusic, by calling ArtTix at 801-355-2787, or in person at the Eccles Theater box office.
The Sound of Music

When • Through March 3; Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday, 8 p.m., Saturday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Where • Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main St., Salt Lake City

Tickets • $35-$125