Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities and sciences, to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Eileen McCaffery: We knew that kids who had high levels of dropout rate, that if we could do something that engaged them and that made them want to come to school every day, that the outcomes of that would be lower disciplinary incidents, higher school attendance, and Julie and her team at the District were able to measure that.
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guests today are Eileen McCaffery, who is Executive Director of the Community Music School of Springfield and Julie Jaron, Director of Visual and Performing Arts for Springfield Public Schools. Welcome to both of you.
Eileen McCaffery: Thank you.
Julie Jaron: Thank you.
Anita Walker: This is the dynamic duo. And for our listeners, if you only knew the partnership that I am looking at across the table here in the studios for our podcast. You two have been working together for how long to make sure that every child in Springfield has an opportunity to make music?
Eileen McCaffery: Well, actually, I will begin by saying thank you for this opportunity. Julie and I are absolutely delighted to be sitting down with you, Anita. And the third partner in this combination for Sonido Musica is sitting across from us, which is you and the Spring– and the Mass Cultural Council, because we couldn’t do this work without the support of the Mass Cultural Council, so thank you for that. And Julie has a great story of how this partnership began, so I’m going to turn it over to her and let her tell how the original concept of Sonido Musica came together.
Julie Jaron: Right. It was– <laughs> it was an interesting time about five years ago now, I believe. And we were having– I was having some wonderings, noticings, et cetera, about what was going on in the climate of our school system of Springfield Public Schools and thinking about how I could build music programming. And I knew that I was noticing middle school music programming and especially at the middle school level, it was really having difficulty. And we were getting smaller and smaller bands for a lot of different reasons. But in any case, I was trying to come up with something really creative and hadn’t had a whole lot of success working on my own in isolation and I had heard the buzz in the district was that there was an interim director at the Community Music School of Springfield whom I had not met at that point, but I figured, well, you know, I’ll go over and introduce myself and hopefully there’s something that we can do together. I wasn’t even sure what that was going to be, but I figured I’d start with an introduction and see where it went. Lo and behold, I met Eileen McCaffery that day and it turned out to be a very fortuitous moment because it developed into a partnership as you said that was so fruitful for our students, for I think both of us professionally and I just am so grateful for the opportunity to have worked together. So we sat down one summer afternoon and kind of had a meeting of the minds and talked about all the different possibilities that could be in music programming and how we might be able to collaborate, and built the groundwork for something that later became known as Sonido Musica. And really, it was that summer day of me throwing up my hands and saying, “Well, I might as well give it a try.” And then having Eileen be receptive and so open to throwing around ideas and building some starting groundwork for Sonido Musica and knowing that we had elementary music programs that were pretty strong and high school music programs that were pretty strong and trying to fill in the middle and starting with that middle school area to build the bridge between the elementary and high school.
Anita Walker: I just want to emphasize for our listeners. So the voice you’ve been hearing is Julie’s, who works for the Public Schools. I’m sure a lot of our listeners are familiar with the exercise of being outside the school district in a music program and knocking on the schoolhouse door trying to get in.
Eileen McCaffery: Exactly.
Anita Walker: But this was the other way around. This was the school opening the door and inviting our community music school in.
Eileen McCaffery: That’s a really important distinction. I’m really glad you brought that up. Because I think there’s a lot of important work happening in nonprofits, but the ability to partner, to build something from the ground up, that was where the secret sauce was. And when Julie came to me, we knew we had a gap, we knew we had a problem. We knew that the music school had teaching artists who desperately wanted access to the kids but wanted to do it in a way that built a sustainable music program. And that was really the key. Our goal here was not to have the community music school be the solution for music education in the Springfield Public Schools, but rather to create a doorway, a pathway for the principals and the school administration to see the power of the arts working every day in their school. So what Julie brought to us was we call her the GPS of the Sonido program, because we needed somebody who could say, “These are the partners.” We started with three partner schools, all three middle schools. But Julie chose the partners that she thought would be able to take this proposition. And what we said to them was quite simply, “If you let us– -You choose whatever group of students that you want. It doesn’t have to be your star performers, it can be kids who are in– at most at risk. You pick the cohort and we will provide music education. After the third year, we’re going to expect you to hire a music teacher, at least a .3 music teacher.” So the idea would be, we would become the wraparound and support the services. So that way, we were no longer on the outside looking in, but we were building something together that was foundational and we were learning as we went along. And that along with the access that Julie provided with the Statistics Department to now measure those outcomes, because we knew that kids who had high levels of dropout rate, particularly in the middle school leading into high school, that if we could do something that engaged them, that made them want to come to school every day, that required discipline and structure, we knew that the outcomes of that would be lower disciplinary incidents, higher school attendance and Julie and her team at the district were able to measure that. And it was remarkable, the improvement, the lower disciplinary incidents and the higher attendance. So that’s really what launched what was 3 schools and 60 kids to what is now 18 Springfield public schools and almost 1000 kids involved in these programs.
Anita Walker: So you are delivering results because every school principal has to be accountable. Accountability is sort of the middle name of public schools these days and has been for quite some time. So I imagine some might have been skeptical at first. Were they?
Julie Jaron: I think that it was– it was interesting, because when I originally approached the three principals that we started with, I don’t think that they were necessarily skeptical. I think they really did believe that music was good for children. And I don’t think it took a whole lot of convincing. It was a matter of finding a way to make it happen in the school that was creative thinking outside the box and didn’t involve at that point a lot of money on their part.
Anita Walker: What’s the biggest barrier? Is it time? Is it classroom space? Is it instruments? What are– What hurdles did you have to leap?
Eileen McCaffery: The very beginning one was, frankly, funding because the issue was how are we going to pay the teaching artists to go into the classroom. We at the music school had 60 instruments that we could use initially, so the vision initially was how are we going to fund these schools and how are we going to make sure that there’s accountability, that they recognize that this was an investment that is a joint investment. It’s not a music school investment and it’s not a district, it’s a program made together. And that’s where the STARS grant came in. Because the way the STARS grant is set up, it is exactly for these reasons. And so we could go with this value proposition saying, we will bring this program to you. We will help you write the grant to get the STARS grant. But along with it, there is very clear expectations and Julie was so helpful in articulating in the language that the principals could understand what was really going to happen here, and that they would look at her and say, “You’re my partner.” I was new. Our teaching artists were new. But Julie was a known quantity who delivered and so that opened the door for us. So I won’t underestimate how powerful it was to have the right partner sitting at the table. But then the barriers, as we grew the program, the barriers became instruments because our string program, which again, we did strings the first year then we moved to strings and band, it was again the Mass Cultural Council who stepped up and said, “If you’re going to scale this program, you’re going to quickly run out of instruments.” And through the SerHacer program and the Johnson Strings Initiative, we were able to suddenly open possibilities where as I said, you know, the number of kids who are playing violin, viola, cello, it was only a glimmer of a possibility a few years ago that this would happen and today we’re watching it play out all across the district.
Anita Walker: I want to jump in. For our listeners, the STARS program funds teaching artists in the schools. You could find out about it on the Mass Culture Council website. And the SerHacer program supports also creative youth development through music. So now you said there was a bargain the principal had to make. What happened there? The hiring of the .3 music teacher?
Julie Jaron: Right. So that was something that I think both Eileen and I knew was important in this agreement, that there was skin in the game as far as the school district and the principals just understanding that if this is valuable, that there needed to be a way to continue to provide replicability and wraparound services, as Eileen had indicated earlier, would be there after the hire of the music teacher. So, Sonido Musica was never intended to replace a certified music educator. In fact, it was the opposite. It was meant to provide a way for principals to understand the power of music education that was done sequentially, that was done through a curriculum of quality. And so with that, we were able to take the instructors from the community music school, train them with the curriculum that Springfield Public Schools has, the music curriculum, and give them those tools to be able to help us deliver a quality program of instruction in music education. Then, once a principal saw it working with students and saw the amazing results, which was evident through all kinds of opportunities for them to view, we were then able to say, all right. With this, we need to now have a certified music educator .3, which is less than half-time. It’s not a huge impact as far as what the principal would have to put forward financially, but it does make a statement that this is valuable and this education for students is worth something and the district does support music education in a real way. And the principal is showing that through the purchase of a music teacher. Now in reality, what ended up happening was the program worked so well that many of the principals made the choice to have a full-time music teacher rather than just go part-time. So it speaks to the fact that this is valuable and what we were seeing was that students were engaged and all the anecdotal evidence was coming to light in the fact that our statistics were showing that the students who participated in the Sonido Musica program were coming to school on those particular days that the program was happening. So principals were noticing that when we were able to show them on paper, “Here’s what it looks like,” and they were willing to make the investment. So the Sonido program really did have that value as we saw.
Anita Walker: You know, when we talk about case making around the value of the arts in the schools, there’s a lot of things that we talk about that are what you call corollary. Well, this happened and this happened, but, you know, causation is a little bit more difficult. But the two most powerful outcomes that I hear about time and time again when we put the arts in the school day is the kids come to school and if they don’t come to school, they don’t learn anything. So if they come to school for music, then they also get to take math and history and literature and reading and writing. But the second piece is the engagement of families. Families are much more likely to come to a concert where their child is playing a musical instrument than maybe for a math gathering. Nothing against math, but are those the two outcomes that you saw most powerfully?
Eileen McCaffery: Absolutely. In fact, I was just talking with a family this past weekend and that’s what they talked about. They talked about how they are seeing their child succeed in a way that they never imagined. Who would have guessed that over the course of a year, the child who had never played a cello could be rocking it out to at this concert and playing really beautiful music in such a short amount of time. Now, that child practices all the time because it hit something that really resonated with the child’s identity. But the parents were there. They had their aunts and their uncles and their cousins and it was a multigenerational celebration of this one young person’s achievement and they all came. And I think what you’re saying is very important. It’s something that’s important to us. Advocacy and understanding what is the responsibility of the parent to ask for the continuation of arts in the school, that’s a new experience for a lot of our families and it’s a little scary, you know, stepping up and being an advocate. So what Julie and I have been working on is how to take that opportunity when you have the families to bring them along and have them understand their obligation to support music education. And honestly, for a lot of our families, they don’t have a quiet place to practice, so sometimes they’re right smack in the middle of the family. And we thank them for that, because that’s a sacrifice that the parents are making. But in exchange, we then ask them to share with the school administration, what does this mean in your family? How has this landed for you? What is it like to see your child and be so proud of the accomplishments of your children? And what is it like for your child to have a relationship with a kid who’s in the middle school in another school playing that same piece of music? And when Julie was talking about a school that made the decision to put a band program in, I will tell you that the cohort of kids in the Sonido program, there were 40 kids in that program and when they hired that full-time music teacher that first year, there were 250 kids who signed up to be part of band. Now, I mean, I have chills just saying that to you, because this is what’s really happening is the kids are responding. The parents are overjoyed. And our job is to make sure that’s sustainable and that we can continue to teach at the highest quality despite having so many kids involved. And that’s what’s happening here in Springfield and we should all be– You know, we’re all part of it but we’re all sort of sitting back saying, “Wow. It works when we all do our piece, our job.”
Julie Jaron: And I also want to piggyback on that thought, in that when I had the original conversations with principals and Eileen, you were there as well, we were talking about how to choose students and which students would be appropriate for this program. And I think it was an interesting conversation because principals were thinking that these needed to be the straight A students, the best ones that would be the highest achieving in the other academic areas. And Eileen and I both felt really strongly that this wasn’t necessarily so, that we wanted to see children who would benefit from an opportunity to participate in a hands-on music program. And I wanted principals to be thinking about who would be best served for this particular opportunity. So it didn’t have to be the straight A student. It didn’t have to be the ones that necessarily showed a musical aptitude in some way, but think real broadly, I– You know, when we were talking about it, I would say, “Think about the students that sometimes have a hard time managing their behavior sitting still for very long. Think about the students that are constantly dancing in their seats or humming to themselves or making extraneous anything in their classroom. Because oftentimes, those are the ones that need to be engaged in something much more holistic, whole body, hands-on, involving themselves in perhaps this music program.” So it was interesting to see the lights turn on as we talked with the principals and offered that wide-open opportunity to have students participate in this way, that it wasn’t limited to what we would say in “the brightest and the best.”
Anita Walker: You know, one of the things I think is remarkable about what you’ve done is you’ve taken something involving 20 students, which is an experiment, but you’ve really turned it into a replicable model because you’ve really taken it to scale. We can really see that it can happen in a school district.
Eileen McCaffery: Yes, indeed. And one of the things that we were, you know, cognizant of from the beginning was to make sure that the quality of the instruction stayed high at the same time as the number of children served grew. And we paid a lot of attention to that and were proud to say that we got a phone call about six months ago from the Holyoke Public Schools and the District wanted to replicate a Sonido model and they have chosen five sites and they are funding the Sonido Holyoke– Sonido Musica Holyoke for the new school year in elementary, middle in two– three elementary schools and two middle schools. And we are going to have the opportunity to replicate this in another district with another set of leaders and we are really delighted about that. Right?
Anita Walker: What’s that expression? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery <laughs> or vice versa.
Eileen McCaffery: Apparently. [ph?]
Anita Walker: But I mean, it, what it really, imitation is really evidence of success.
Eileen McCaffery: Absolutely.
Julie Jaron: Well, and what’s really nice is that Holyoke has music educators in the schools and so having Sonido as the wraparound service means that similarly to what’s going on in Springfield, we work with the music educator and the music educator guides the work of Sonido Musica. So it’s not that we come in with a program that tells a music educator, “This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to come in and do our thing.” And it’s not like that at all. What’s intended is that the music educator gets to craft the program that works for their students because they know best who’s in front of them. So, Sonido then becomes the wraparound and serves students by working with the music educator, which is what’s going to be happening in Holyoke.
Anita Walker: So it’s a true partnership.
Eileen McCaffery: It is. And I’m just so amazed, Anita. The partnership keeps growing. We keep getting these amazing people who say, “I can do this piece.” You know, we’ve talked about Johnson Strings and when Julie has been working for many years with Jim Provost from Jerry’s Music. He was so inspired by our vision, even five years ago when it was a really a big vision, and he became our partner to provide band instruments and to– We do a thing called Play It Forward, which is an instrument drive. And we have one of our grocery store chains, which is Big Y has let us have that– them as drop off sites around the city and actually, around the Greater Springfield community. And when those instruments get dropped off, Julie is able to work with Jerry’s Music to fix those instruments and get them as quickly as they can back in the hands of– So everyone who has something in their attic and they drop it off, they now are part of the Sonido program. They’re now part of this vision that kids in Springfield deserve to have quality instruments, quality instruction and to be part of this bigger ensemble making. And it’s happening with the amazing partners that we’ve been able to bring along. And everybody does the thing that they’re good at and it ties us together in a really beautiful way.
Anita Walker: You’ve talked a lot about how principals have endorsed this by their actions, how parents speak about what they’re seeing in the changes in their youth. Can you share a little of the voice of the student?
Eileen McCaffery: Yes, absolutely. Well, we were very fortunate in having the ability to partner with UMass and their music department. And they came and they did this really sort of beautiful qualitative assessment where they were able to do surveys and get kids to talk about, you know, what does this do for you? What does it mean to see yourself as a musician? And I personally experienced something that I just thought said it all. We were sitting in one of our first classes, this was a couple of years ago, and the kids sitting in the room were all chosen or had self-selected to be a part of the program. And one of our teaching artists went around the room and said, “So tell us what your experience is with music.” And there were about 30 kids in the room and as we went around you could tell the energy was, “I never played an instrument. Nope, I didn’t get to do that. Nope.” And we got halfway through the room and our teaching artist, it was Jim Messbauer, and he said, “Wait a minute. Hold on a minute. Let me ask a different question. How many of you wake up every day and have music in your head? Every time you walk to your locker, it’s a different song?” And everybody’s hand went up. And he said, “Then let’s just start right here. We are all musicians. You are all welcome and you are good enough. Now let’s get to work.” And so what does that mean for a kid? How does that land when you think you’re in deficit, that it’s an “I can’t do?” And what is that like to say, “Are you kidding me? I am not only going to hold this instrument and learn it, but I am going to be representing my school at a concert.” We had so many beautiful messages from the children. In fact, the very first year that Johnson Strings provided instruments, unbeknownst to me, the kids before they returned them wrote little love notes and tucked them in the instruments. And when we were packing up with Johnson Strings and opened them up, it was one little note after another. “I love violin.” “Thank you so much.” I mean, these, they fluttered and flapped out of the instruments. And I put them all together and I took a picture and I sent it to Carol Johnson because what does it mean? It means, it’s an ecosystem. It’s a healthy ecosystem where everybody has something that they learn from this experience. And I’ll also say in terms of creative economy, which, you know, what is the impact of this in hiring teaching artists? Because the kids are so responsive to it, it allows us to hire some of the most incredibly talented and keep them at the community music school. And one example of the impact of the creative economy is the Director of the Sonido program is Eleni Yalanos. She moved here from New York City. She set herself up doing this work and because of the success of this program, she was able to purchase a house in Springfield. And she is one of those people who’s contributing to the vibrancy of Springfield but also is affecting the entire economy as are all of our 11 teaching artists that have been able to find very important work in connecting in this program. So it’s a beautiful sort of ecosystem, right.
Julie Jaron: In fact, Jeremy Turgeon is a graduate of Springfield Public Schools for Sci-Tech. And so he’s a teaching artist within our group and does a phenomenal job and so it speaks to how leaders are built at the public school level and carry on into their working world and the career that Jeremy has built also serves the public school, but the entire community, because he does play professionally, as well.
Eileen McCaffery: And Anita, honestly, every time I ask these amazing artists who have some of the top training and can be teaching anywhere in the world, you know, “We’re so lucky to have you. Why do you love this work?” Well, first of all, you can tell why, because every time they’re together this is what they were made to do. These are performers. They have, you know they teach privately. They have their own bands. They’re performers. But this is their work that they love. And they love it because of the response of the kids. Because this is a community where the kids recognize, they see themselves in the Jeremys and in the Elenis and in the Mias. They see their– the possibilities. But the way that we model behavior, the way these musicians share with each other and bring each other along, that’s a powerful symbol for us to bring into the school day every day, which is to say, this is how we as adults treat each other. This is how we treat you and this is what we expect in you treating each other. And the proof is in the ensemble music making. It’s a magic result, right, because the kids see the power of I’m important. I play this part and you play it and I might not know you or I might not even like you, but in this moment, we are locked together in our fate–
Anita Walker: In harmony.
Eileen McCaffery: In harmony.
Anita Walker: A powerful story of what it means to have music education in our public schools. I want to thank you both, Eileen McCaffery and Julie Jaron, two of our creative minds out loud.
Eileen McCaffery: Thank you, Anita.
Narrator: To learn more about this episode and to subscribe, visit creativemindsoutloud.org.