We have put music—essentially choral music—at the center of our school to accomplish three goals: 1) have a great school; 2) serve children at risk; and 3) be a model for others.
In a recent interview on Public Radio, a young white woman blues singer who has had a long, successful partnership with an old black old-time blues man was asked what made for their success together. Her answer was, “Everyone should learn at least one instrument.” Our children are learning the best instrument, their voices.
To see some of the power we hope to capture for our children through music, go to the website TED: Ideas Worth Spreading and view a talk by Ben Zander. The rewards of music study, studying difficult music, will require hard work and will be worth the effort.
Our school is very personal. Our hearts are committed. It was this way when we started the project. It is this way for the parents, for the board, and for Mr.Headley, our principal. It is for our teachers.
Now, I can’t carry a tune. As a native speaker of American English I did not learn to match pitches as a child and no one taught me. In fact, one choir director told me, “Just stand there. You don’t have to sing.” I didn’t then and so I can’t now.
What if that had been reading?
I did learn to read and did graduate from college. That has been good for me. Even in the current tough economy, the unemployment rate for college graduates is under 5%. For people who did not complete high school it is close to 30%.
A recent study (PDF) done for the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that a high proportion of children who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade fail to complete high school. Third grade is where the transition from learning to read to reading to learn takes place. Below grade level children don’t read and don’t finish high school with horrible consequences. The work of our school is to get our children to move above grade level, avoid horrible outcomes, and attain great ones.
The school started at St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue in Manhattan. St. Barts is a large Episcopal Church with a rich musical traditions and the largest pipe organ in New York City. Our rector, Bill Tully’s older son who went to Oberlin Conservatory is now a professional musician. Bill noted that Adam carried more self discipline into and out of music class. It seemed to be part of the learning.
We did not have the money or the space to start a choir school at St. Barts so we started a choristers program. We put ads in local papers all over the city for music students. In a program that is now nearly fifteen years old we have averaged between 30 and 50 singers, ages six to eighteen a year. The number of children is too small to claim that they have academic success because they sing at a high level. We think there is a carry-over from music to academic achievement but cannot prove it. We expect the performance of Voice students will demonstrate this link.
Look at what choristers must do. They must be on time for rehearsals and performances. They have to maintain a folder with their music and a pencil to mark their parts. They read music. They pay attention, keep up with the group, and work hard. They must behave and perform in front of large audiences. And they do it starting at six years old.
KIPP, a very successful Charter School organization has an acronym to cover classroom management by teachers: SLANT. Teachers are judged by how the children behave: Sitting up; Listening; Asking questions; Nodding understanding; and Tracking the teachers with their eyes. Choirs practice these same things.
To see how this kind of activity has worked elsewhere see TED presentations by Jose Abreu and by Gustavo Dudamel. Our goal is to make great students and we think working hard with enthusiasm to be great choral singers will help them achieve that.
Later, at St. Barts we learned that we could sponsor a charter school. We attracted a group of perhaps forty people who attended our working sessions at different times. We studied budgets and math curricula, church/state issues, the charter law and hiring practices. We began meeting as a group in September 2005 often every week or every other week. We had help from the Center for Charter School Excellence and CEI-PEA. The most effective thing we did was hire Frank Headley as our school leader and Principal.
One of our working group sessions was with a man named Walter Mischel who teaches at Columbia University but forty years ago was at Stanford. There he did a famous experiment. He put 4, 5 and 6 year old children in a room, gave them a treat, a cookie or a marshmallow, and said he was going out. They could eat the treat at any time but if they still had it when he returned he would give them another. Two of three ate the treat. The one third that did not eat it got a second one AND over the next thirty years of the study they got more because of their self restraint. They got higher grades in school, better College Board scores, more successful careers and more stable marriages. Self restraint. Our idea is that work on music, work in a choir, teaches self restraint. It teaches learning skills. SLANT. There is a TED talk on this subject by Joachim de Posada.
We continued meeting and ultimately created a 1000 plus page application, mostly Frank’s work, that is the basis of our charter. We applied to be located in Long Island City because it has many fewer charter schools than the South Bronx, Harlem, or Central Brooklyn. We are very glad to be here.
Finally, there is a management/organization strategy that we developed during the time of the working group and carries over to the school. We used it with the task forces in the working group and it fits the way the school runs now. An acronym from Dan Pink (TED) describes it well: AMP. It is Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Autonomy refers to people’s control of the workplaces. For teachers this is perfect. They are in charge of their own classrooms. They represent parents, the board, the coaches, Mr. Headley and the administration. For the children they are the school.
Mastery requires continuous improvement. This is the professional learning community in action. Our teachers spend most of their summers advancing their skills. Each part of the school, parents, board, administration, and teachers works for our children’s success.
Finally, there is Purpose. There are many things to say here concerning excellence and the joys of success but one stands out: If children are not reading on grade level by the end of third grade, they are at high risk of failing high school. If they are above and making progress, their lives will be improved and enriched.
Richard Bayles, Board President
Learn more about our Board of Trustee members here.