When students in music class at Jennings School District in Missouri started taking violin lessons, they would show when they were frustrated. After a year of playing beautiful music, the students wait a beat, and calm down, instead of acting out.
With troubled schools where standardized test scores are abysmal, absenteeism runs rampant and aspirations of breaking out of poverty feel like a pipe dream, the district in urban St. Louis County has the look and attitude of a feisty kid that wants to overcome the long odds for success.
To outsiders, this may seem ambitious. That’s because it is. More than 95 percent of the district’s 2,500 students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Many students are on the verge of homelessness and growing up in single-parent households, or are in the care of a grandparent, extended family or distant relative.
Yet instead of grousing about having disadvantages, the Jennings administrators, its faculty and students at its eight schools are singing a more upbeat tune. Credit the arrival of Superintendent Tiffany Anderson in 2012 and the district infusing every area of its curriculum with performing arts, fine art and music.
The district launched a Saturday Academy, which is voluntary and open to all students. It reinforces and extends what students learn during the regular school week. Their classroom teachers write lesson plans for the Saturday teachers, who are from local districts and universities. This gives students a chance to experience different teaching styles across the same subject area. Breakfast and lunch are also served.
Jennings School District in Missouri
- Superintendent: Tiffany Anderson
- Schools: 8
- Students: 2,561
- Staff and faculty: 449
- Per child expenditure: $10,688
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 95%
- Budget 2013-14 projected expenditures: $27 million
- Website: www.jenningsk12.org
Superintendent Anderson, who grew up in the area and attended nearby schools, says closing the achievement gap is all about raising student performance and creating communities. “Great neighborhoods don’t by themselves make great schools as much as schools create better communities,” she says. “So really, closing the achievement gap is about social justice.”
At the district’s brand-new College Prep Academy, middle school students wear uniforms—a red cardigan, white shirt and khaki pants—and attend school for an extra hour each day. Students and their parents are required to volunteer at the school or in the community. And tucked away in every building are appliances one rarely sees in a public school: sets of washing machines and dryers.
“One of the things we know that parents in our community need is a place to do laundry,” Anderson says. “So, each hour of volunteer work in the schools entitles them to do a load of laundry.”
The district benefits from the volunteer work, but students also get to see their parents being involved in the school, whether it’s reading to classes, volunteering in the main office or assisting with the lunch, Anderson says.
Music and art’s role
Anderson wanted to include music and art in all academic subjects from kindergarten through senior year. “Music and art are a form of expression, and (they) can be used to simplify complex skills and to help students express themselves academically,” Anderson says.
“And the arts are used to accelerate learning in math, science and social studies. The arts are helping to give students a voice and helping to build their confidence.”
For instance, in kindergarten, youngsters learn to tell time with a dance exercise that reinforces their understanding of math and how clocks work. In math, students write and sing rap songs to increase their understanding of multiplication tables. The music and arts program also pairs students with musical instruments. Beyond mastering their assigned instrumental pieces, the students are learning time management and organizational skills and how music can have a calming influence.
Yet, in many districts across the country, music and arts enrichment are cut when budgets get lean—even as a growing body of research points out that immersion in art and music are connected to gains in math, reading comprehension, improved cognition, better concentration and willingness to work in a team.
While there aren’t any tests to prove if music and art improve students’ grades, there are anecdotes. For instance, teacher James McKay Jr. credits the music instruction he received in school for getting him into college, giving him a career and enabling him to buy a home. He started playing the violin in the fourth grade, and had switched to the double bass by high school.
McKay’s students are learning the violin, the viola and the cello. From his perspective, even though the full impact of the arts at Jennings may not be known for some time (testing is underway now), he sees a change in his students since the music program started.
“I would have to say it’s self discipline,” McKay says. “I have noticed students that were notorious for flying off the handle really tone down how they respond when they are angry or if something doesn’t go their way. I see them taking a moment to step back and think how they want to respond. instead of just being reactive.
“Because music deals with repetition and mastery to be successful on their instruments, they must do a lot of critical thinking,” McKay concludes. “This is transferring to their daily lives, and I see them thinking more in their tasks.”
MariAn Gail Brown is a freelance writer in Connecticut.