San Diego School Bucks Trend, Hires Music Teacher for Common Core

San Diego School Bucks Trend, Hires Music Teacher for Common Core

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Image: Brothers Diego and Jesus Garcia are part of the music program at Lauderbach Elementary in Chula Vista.

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SAN DIEGO – Alex Cortes, principal at J. Calvin Lauderbach Elementary in Chula Vista says he’s found a way to enhance his school’s implementation of the new Common Core education standards. In addition to improving technology and offering teacher training, as schools across the state are doing, Cortes also decided to hire a full-time music teacher.

“I believe music can help the academic progress of my students,” says Cortes, “even under Common Core.”

Chula Vista Elementary School District – where almost 70 percent of students are Hispanic – has been working to put in place the Common Core State Standards since they were adopted in 2010. California is one of 45 states that have adopted the new standards, which revamp the way English language arts and math are taught in classrooms, emphasizing critical thinking, project-based learning and in-class group work.

Cortes believes a full-time music teacher will help students at Lauderbach – more than 80 percent of who are English Learners – develop these skills.

Diego García is a sixth grader at the school. “My music class helped me to improve my reading,” he says, “because you have to focus on the notes you are going to play.”

When García first entered the after-school music program, he had problems with reading and was assigned to attend instruction with other English Language Learner (ELL) students. His language skills have since improved and he says music instruction was a factor.

“Before starting to play, you read very quick the first line of notes to get an idea of the length of the whole line … [during] a concert, people have no idea you are already counting times, reading notes and organizing in your mind.”

Educators say such skills will be critical to student success under Common Core.

Still, Cortes’ decision to reintroduce music at Lauderbach bucks a recent trend in the opposite direction. The recession that began in 2008 prompted school officials to hone in on core content areas – such as math and science. Many slashed or eliminated entirely music and art offerings.

Last year the White House merged the Arts in Education program, part of the Department of Education, into an umbrella program covering health education, financial literacy and foreign language. Critics say the move further eroded already lackluster funding for the arts in public schools.

Like other districts Chula Vista spent the past decade cutting music instruction from nearly all of its 45 schools. Today, however, Lauderbach is one of two schools in the district with full-time music teachers, while four schools have already hired full time music instructors for the 2014-2015 school year. Superintendent Francisco Escobedo says the district will work on bringing full-time music teachers to all 45 schools over the next ten years.

Lauderbach’s program was launched with assistance from the San Diego Youth Symphony’s Community Opus Project and is based on the Venezuelan El Sistema music training model, which involves instruction in small groups and subsequent student symphony performances.

Principal Cortes says the model complements the Common Core, which encourages a more collaborative learning environment.

Recent studies, meanwhile, show a direct link between music instruction and improved academic outcomes. They also point to music’s potential to narrow the academic gap separating rich and poor students, a key concern for Lauderbach, where 89 percent of students come from low-income families.

A study by University of Kansas Music Professor Christopher Johnson showed that students in elementary schools with quality music programs had better scores in English and math on standardized tests, compared to schools with no or low-quality music programs and regardless of socioeconomic differences. Johnson compares the concentration that music training requires to the focus needed to perform well on standardized tests.

Chula Vista public schools are in fact participating in a five-year study by neuroscientists at the University of California – San Diego, who are looking to identify possible connections between music and academic achievement. A similar study is being conducted in Los Angeles with the Harmony Project that is focusing on a group of at-risk youth. As the students study their instruments, researchers study the students’ brains.

Private organizations are also stepping in to help districts increase their music offerings.

Under a partnership with Chula Vista and the San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory, the VH1 Save the Music foundation has promised to purchase $30,000 worth of musical equipment for every district that hires a full time music instructor.

“The program is not only about music – it’s about music and opportunity,” said Dalouge Smith, president and executive officer of the San Diego Youth Symphony. “We look forward to telling Chula Vista’s story and galvanizing other school districts to give their students a promising future through music.”

This story was produced as part of New America Media’s 2014 Ethnic Media Education Reporting Fellowship, with support from the California Education Policy Fund.