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Mecklenburg County schools launch pilot program for music education

SoVaNow.com / June 18, 2014
Mecklenburg County Public Schools will launch a pilot project for the 2014-15 school year that will integrate the arts to improve students’ education. The program calls for every student at Chase City and La Crosse Elementary schools to receive classroom instruction for the violin and the keyboard during the academic year.

The goal is more than just teaching each student to play an instrument, according to Mecklenburg School Superintendent James Thornton. At the Monday night school board meeting, he described that the program is designed to boost performance on standardized tests.

Thornton said that he first learned of the program while attending a National School Board Association meeting. Returning from the meeting, Thornton asked Chase City Elementary Principal Fred Taylor if the school would be interested in pursuing an integrated arts curriculum similar to one at Wallace Elementary School of Integrated Arts in Kokomo, Ind.

“I thought about Fred because his school already has the violin program,” Thornton said. Music teacher Marta Gonzalez-Hipps has been teaching violin to students at Chase City Elementary school for the past couple years.

Thornton, Taylor, and assistant superintendent Melody Hackney travelled to Indiana to view first-hand the school where students study art, music, dance, movement, and similar subjects and apply this knowledge to core school subjects. The students also have daily lessons in piano keyboarding and violin.

Officials at the Wallace school explained the object of the music lessons is not for the students to merely learn to read music sheets or even to learn to play the piano or violin well, but to use music to impact their cognitive development and improve general academic performance. Thornton also said several studies have found a strong link between arts education and cognitive development.

“It deepens learning and improves creativity,” Thornton said of the integrated arts program, adding, “When [the Wallace school] first started the program fewer than 50 percent of the students passed the Indiana assessment,” Thornton said.

“Now, their passage rate is around 90 percent.”

The program, explained by Thornton, has a secondary benefit. With nearly 75 percent of the students at Chase City Elementary coming from financially strained families there is little to no chance for them to travel outside the county. Music is a way to expose these students to the world beyond Mecklenburg County. As envisioned by Taylor, all students will – some for the first time – travel outside Mecklenburg County to attend concerts and music-related events.

Taylor returned from Indiana enthusiastic about the program and presented the idea, first to the faculty at his school, and then to the faculty and administration at other elementary schools. La Crosse Principal Michelle Powell asked to implement the same program at her school.

Explaining why the program is limited to La Crosse and Chase City this first year, Thornton said that the school system could not afford to purchase the instruments and hire the staff needed at all four elementary schools.

This program is the first step of several improvements to be made to the curriculums at schools throughout the county, according to Thornton. Despite improvements in this year’s SOL test scores, Thornton said he continues to search for ways to improve the quality of education in Mecklenburg County. He challenged each school to become more like an elite magnet school, “because I don’t think it’s [the SOL scores] a measure of what our staff and teachers do.”

However, he does not want every school to become an integrated arts school. Others may decide to focus on Science Technology Engineering Mathematics program known as STEM or possibly become language immersion schools. When that occurs, he will also explore ways to allow parents to send the students to a school that offers a curriculum the students are interested in pursuing, not just their local school.

As always, funding is an issue. If the people support the creation of these new elite schools, Thornton said, then they should tell not just the members of the school board, but the Board of Supervisors.

“Tell them this is so important to us that you need to fund it and pay for it out of our tax dollars,” Thornton said.

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