Thursday, May 8, 2008

From Jaime Austria at El Sistema-NYC

Imagine programs like this, and so many others, integrating sustained and long-term elements of El Sistema...


Violin program is music to kids' ears
By Amy Larson
May 02, 2008

Every Wednesday Bronx Public School 56's auditorium is silent except for the sound of violins as professional musician Kokoe Tanaka instructs a violin orchestra of fourth-graders. The violinist's presence is the work of principal Priscilla Sheeran, who thinks that music is critical to education.

Music fell silent 30 years ago when the city's Department of Education slashed art from the core curriculum. Now principals and politicians who believe in the power of art to inspire and educate are shouldering the task of bringing the arts back to public schools.

Tanaka had no trouble controlling a room full of 10-year-olds who had just undergone the stress of yet another standardized test: this one in science.

Ten-year-old Brandon Cotto at P.S. 56 in Norwood explained that he did not dread school that day even with a standardized test on the schedule; as soon as testing was done he'd be in his school's auditorium playing the violin until lunchtime.

"I knew we were having a science test, but I was looking forward to having a good day in violin class," said Brandon with a timid smile.

Other kids in the Bronx were not as lucky. "Music class" was missing from many schools' course lists. In fact, Bronx public schools have the least number of art classes out of any borough in New York City, according to City Councilmember James Vacca.

And the rest of the city is not an ideal yard stick, as 96 percent of public elementary schools failed to meet the state's art requirements, according to a survey conducted by the city's Department of Education The state of the arts in public schools was revealed earlier this year when the department conducted a survey of public schools citywide. The results disturbed educators and City Council members on the education committee.

Vacca said a lack of arts is affecting Bronx students' education.

The funding just wasn't there to pay for a full-time music teacher, said Priscilla Sheeran, principal of P.S. 56. With the principal still pushing for what music they could afford, the school introduced music by having the students use their voices. A few years later, still unable to afford instruments, the school bought recorders, which are plastic and inexpensive.

"We had that going for seven years," said Sheeran, who began her teaching career in 1991 at P.S. 56 before climbing the ranks.

"We are in the business of educating children. That doesn't mean always putting a book in front of them." Every child has gifts, she said. "Unless we develop the whole child you never know if you've missed something."

The Department of Education's art administrators said each school's principal is responsible for implementing art programs. Schools received an average of $312 per student for art enrichment for the 2006-2007 school year.

But art classes never developed in many schools. Principals said they could not direct this funding toward the arts because first they had to pay for math and English classes, which was hard enough.

But in October 2007, City Councilmember Oliver Koppell came to the school's aid by funding a resident artist to teach violin to every third- and fourth-grader in the school.

Tanaka, who is a doctoral candidate in musical arts and works for the Bronx Arts Ensemble, first tucked a violin under her chin when she was 4 years old. Back then bands were common for schools to have. "My mom told me I always was wanting to play the violin," said Tanaka, who hopes to give her young students the same chance she had to discover an underlying talent.

"I have some students who are not doing so well in school or having behavioral problems," Tanaka said. "(But) when they come to violin they really want to learn and [that] motivates them."

When Koppell went to visit the class, he was overjoyed by what he saw: students paying attention and learning through an alternative way.

However, Koppell added, "Most kids are being denied the opportunity."

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