Spotlight on the Community Opus Project
Until a few years ago, San Diego’s Chula Vista Elementary School District (CVESD) had no music program to speak of: the school district had cut music education from most of its 45 schools, and no longer employed a full-time music instructor. As a result, organizations like the San Diego Youth Symphony (SDYS)—an NEA grantee—saw greater enrollment as many parents turned to private instruction for their children. But what about those who couldn’t afford private lessons, or lacked a means of transportation to get to them? Concerned about this gap in access, SDYS founded the Community Opus Project in 2010 with a vision “to make music education affordable and accessible to all children.” Working with CVESD, Community Opus was established at two schools that first year, providing after-school instruction to 65 children. The district took notice of changes almost immediately: better behavior in the classrooms, fewer trips to the principal’s office, and increased parent engagement. The following year, they asked SDYS to implement Community Opus at four more schools, and by year three, SDYS began an in-school pilot program at a seventh school thanks to a Promise Neighborhood grant from the U.S. Department of Education. By 2014, Community Opus was reaching more than 3,000 students at 18 schools, and data collection has shown that program participants performed at higher levels than their peers.
But this is a story not just of individual impact, but of systemic change. In the end, Community Opus taught the school district as much as it did its students, providing lessons on the benefits of music education, and on how to structure an effective music education program. Seeing the benefits in its students, CVESD has made a commitment to return music instruction to all students by 2025, and music teachers have already been reinstated at a number of schools. In the edited interview below, SDYS President and CEO Dalouge Smith told us about the Community Opus Project, from its origins to why it works.
The Origins of the Community Opus Project
The Community Opus Project was derived out of a visioning process that we undertook to look not just at ourselves as an institution, but also at how the San Diego Youth Symphony could have a direct beneficial impact on our broader community. If we could articulate what we wanted the community to look like in the future, then we could work to make that happen.
The vision that we established was to make music education accessible and affordable to all children. We determined that it was not prudent for us to be the direct provider of that music education: there are 500,000 children in San Diego County. What we tried to do instead is identify where resources and infrastructure might already exist. The obvious answer was the public school system. Children are already there, they're already mandated to teach and educate children. To us, the real missing piece was not so much a lack of resources as a lack of priority. So we designed the Community Opus Project to reorient or reintroduce school districts to the positive benefits and potential that accrue to children when they have music education. So the Community Opus Project was designed as a long-term transformation of the school district's own investment in music education.
Engaging Parents to Strengthen Students
From the outset, we really wanted and believed that it was important for parents to feel a connection. The classrooms are totally open to the parents. In the very first days, we had the children putting the instruments in their parents' hands and actually having their parents play what they had learned earlier in the day. These parents, many of whom are non-native English speakers, who had never felt a pathway into their child's school learning experience… It helps build a connection between them and their child, and between them and their school institution.
They know and recognize that their role is substantially at the foundation of the success of what we're doing: making sure the kids have their instruments, making sure they have their uniform, making sure they're arriving on time. And that takes time. When the program first started, there was a lot of building parents toward that knowledge and understanding, but once they got there, their level of commitment grew deeper and deeper.
Seeing Changes, and How They Began
When we first started, we were expecting that the changes [teachers] would notice first would relate to test scores and attendance. What we started to hear before any of that was measured was principals talking about the changes in student behavior. They were seeing these students in their office less often, and the classroom experience for all the children, as a consequence, was a better learning environment because the teacher's attention wasn't being pulled by a couple of disruptive students.
Arts education, and in particular music education, focuses the mind and the body in unison. You can't play a musical instrument by only thinking about it, and you can't play a musical instrument by only physicalizing it. So there's a kind of duality which is unique to us as human beings: we have this ability to have a mental and physical activity simultaneously blending into something that neither the mental nor the physical could be doing exclusively on its own.
Just like any habit, the more that a child is habituated to that kind of concentration, the more that kind of concentration becomes easier and easier in other settings. For example, if a child is accustomed to concentrating closely on reading their musical notes, then the next time they're reading a book, they'll have a much easier time simply sitting and staying focused because they've had this practice.
The other thing about music-making is it is a perpetual projecting into the future. You can't just blow into a trumpet and not think about what note you're trying to hit. If you want to hit a B, then you have to think about it before you do it. So there's a kind of projecting of the self into the future that is deeply embedded into music-making. I think that is another practice that as children undertake it over and over and over, they start to do it in other things as well. They start to make choices and as a consequence, their behavior starts to mirror these choices before they’ve even started the action.
Changing the System from Within
When the school district first asked us to participate in the Promise Neighborhood grant, we agreed and we said we only want to do it if it can be an in-school project. We didn't think more after-school music was what was needed. They basically said, “Okay great, can you teach that?” We were a little taken aback because until that point, our conception was the district handles the in-school instruction and we'll be providing the after-school instruction. We realized they had not had in-school [instruction] for so long that if we said no, then they would have said then we can’t do it.
When the actual implementation grant came a year later, we said we think this grant needs to be applying for a full-time music teacher and the district needs to hire that person as any other certified teacher would be hired. So they did it, and they got it, and that was the first full-time teacher hired into the district. We've come to understand that the capacity that we've built [as Community Opus has grown]—our bigger budget, more employees—is not just growing the youth symphony, which is exciting, but it's actually buoying up the district to the point where it can start making these investments directly on its own.