The Elkhart Truth

New music curriculum helps struggling school change its tune

ELKHART, Ind. (AP) - Cool jazz tunes from Dave Brubeck waft down the hallways of the Roosevelt STEAM Academy.

The music is heard outside of classrooms where students are tapping away on their keyboards or programming robots. In other areas of the school, it is drowned out by the sound of third-graders playing songs such as “Hot Cross Buns” on their wind and string instruments.

The soft soundtrack played over the school’s loudspeaker is just one way the school is incorporating music into its daily operations.

On Tuesday, musicians from the Longy School of Music of Bard College sat side by side with students and learned what has been happening at the school since it underwent a transformation at the beginning of the year.

In addition to being the first school in Elkhart County to take a STEAM - science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics - approach to learning, the school is one of the first in the country to implement a music program known as El Sistema.

El Sistema is a music education program from Venezuela that uses rigorous music study to develop contributing and productive citizens.

Emily Kubitskey, the wind ensemble director of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles and an El Sistema advocate, observed the program in action and said she was impressed to see the level of support and collaboration already in place at Roosevelt.

“It’s incredible,” she told The Elkhart Truth.

El Sistema was designed to serve the neediest students with the fewest resources, making Roosevelt a good test site for the program.

Eighty percent of the school’s students qualify for free- or reduced-price meals, according to the Indiana Department of Education, and a quarter of them are English language learners.

But El Sistema seems to be overcoming those challenges using music, the visitors noted.

Each third-grader at Roosevelt is assigned an instrument - families were not required to pay anything extra to cover the costs - and they play together regularly as an ensemble.

On the white board in Todd Neuenschwander’s music classroom is a guide to how students should act in orchestra.

“Always act in a way that helps the group get better,” it reads in the center.

From that bubble are arrows to directions like “Be responsible, “Use kindness in your voice,” ”Work together to solve problems” and “Come to school every day.”

Bradley Sheppard, director of secondary instruction for Elkhart Community Schools, said those ideas also apply to being a good citizen.

Kubitskey pointed out that that is what El Sistema is about - schools are not teaching students to play the flute to become a classical musician, but rather to be a strong leader.

The Roosevelt students performed their first concert at an open house Dec. 17, when parents were invited to see what kind of projects are in the works.

School events like literacy nights rarely get a large turnout, but more than 500 showed up to Roosevelt Elementary that night.

Roosevelt Principal Jeff Komins said it was that night that he realized just how much of a difference El Sistema is making.

He said students were dragging their parents around the building to show off their projects, and parents were comfortable in the school setting.

Students are also excited about the program.

Third-grader Maylina Forest-Shuler, who likes playing the drums and bells, said she feels smarter and knows more words since she has learned an instrument.

She also said the daily music lessons help with the rest of her schoolwork.

“It helps you to focus more because you have more hands-on and more learning to do,” she said.

Although El Sistema and the focus on the arts is a central and unique program at Roosevelt, it is only one of five emphasized topics. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are also taught at the academy.

The STEAM approach allows students to explore those topics through hands-on lessons in and out of the classroom.

Students toured Conn-Selmer in October to learn about how the instruments - the same ones they play each day at school - are made.

They started at the end of the tour, examining the completed instruments that come out of the major Elkhart-based instrument manufacturer, and then doubled back and watched as a tube of metal was shaped into a flute with a lip plate and keys.

And at the Dec. 17 open house, students were demonstrating how they had programmed robots to score soccer goals.

“It all becomes infused,” said John Hill, Elkhart Community School’s assistant superintendent for instruction. “When we stop looking at subjects in isolation, students start connecting.”

Because it is only the first year of the STEAM Academy at Roosevelt, it is too early to look at quantitative measures of success like test scores or attendance rates.

But stories from teachers, students, parents and administrators indicate the approach is changing the school for the better.

Komins said requiring all students to wear a uniform takes the focus off of trendy clothing and puts it back on learning, resulting in better behavior among students.

Retired teacher Jan Thomas, who taught orchestra for 22 years, can also testify to the better behavior. She volunteers as a mentor in the music classes and said she was impressed by how well Roosevelt students behave in the hallway.

“Kids are paying better attention in class, they’re not sitting there like little machines,” she said. “They are all working together to help each other do something really good. How can it not succeed?”

Jan 14, 2015