Partnering With Schools

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Partnering With Schools

Shannon McCue, Program Manager, Alabama Blues Project


So you want to start an El Sistema program in your community, but do not know where to begin. Where do you go first? How do you recruit students? Often, a likely answer lies in the public school system. In many school districts, as resources are poured into things like standardized test preparation, funding for in-school and after-school arts programs is reduced and sometimes completely cut. As El Sistema programs continue to launch around the country, there are ripe opportunities for school districts to team up with these programs and start or re-start music instruction where there has been none.

In many cases, the key to success in working with schools is forming partnerships. This article explores some examples of the ways Sistema-inspired programs in the U.S. have successfully partnered with school districts. Even if the philosophies of traditional music programs may not completely align with the El Sistema vision, the goal of offering more children access to music is shared by all.

The Youth Orchestra of St. Luke’s (YOSL) is comprised of after-school programs at three schools and one community center, and an after-school program for middle school students. In the initial planning stage, a key move of the OSL Education Department was to contact the in-school general music teacher at one of the schools, who had been a supporter of OSL for many years, to enlist her help in recruiting students. She attended parent interest meetings and spoke on OSL’s behalf at parent-teacher conferences and more casually around the neighborhood. She also helped convince the principal that an instrumental music program would be beneficial to the overall culture of PS 51. After getting the administration on board (the school pays a yearly fee that covers instrument costs and other expenses), OSL approached the existing after-school program to form a partnership. OSL agreed to provide instruments and teachers twice a week, and the after-school program provides music students with snack and homework assistance.

At the Juneau Alaska Music Matters (JAMM) program, founder/director Lorrie Heagy was already an experienced certified general music teacher in the Juneau district when she started the program. Before approaching the district about starting a Sistema program, she studied its strategic plan, and noticed that the term “school readiness” appeared over and over again. So she presented her plan to district administrators as an “intervention for school readiness.” Lorrie also understood the importance of having a positive relationship with classroom teachers. When JAMM began with kindergartners from one school, grant money was used to pay classroom teachers to be present at every music class, so they could learn the progam’s benefits firsthand. JAMM has grown to serve 600 students at four schools in the school district.

The upstate New York Sistema-inspired program CHIME (Creating Harmony, Invigorating Music Education) is sponsored by the Empire State Youth Orchestra (ESYO). It provides daily after-school string ensemble classes to elementary students and weekly private lessons to middle school students. CHIME has found an uncommon fiscal way to partner with its school district. New York State allocates reimbursement funds every year to support arts-in-education programs in schools. However, these funds began to go unused by struggling schools that could not pay up front for the services. ESYO found a way to tap into the funds by directing donor money for CHIME to the school district, which then uses those funds to “purchase” CHIME and be eligible for reimbursement from the state. CHIME’s creative sustainability model is another way that an El Sistema program can partner with a school district to bring music back into the schools. ESYO executive director Rebecca Calos says that the school had the benefit of an “institutional memory” of what the arts could do for a struggling community.

In all of these examples, program leaders found thoughtful and ingenious ways of partnering with school districts. Cultivating the support of school administrators, in-school music teachers, and classroom teachers is paramount in forming positive relationships between El Sistema programs and schools. During this challenging time for the arts in the United States, working together – in whatever way works best for your program and school district – may offer us the best chance of reaching more students through our music programs.


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