Districts of Distinction: Music Matters program, San Gabriel USD

How a San Gabriel USD elementary school uses classical and contemporary music to improve engagement and close the achievement gap

In California’s San Gabriel USD, a persistent achievement gap between Roosevelt Elementary School and the district’s four other elementaries led to out-of-the-box thinking: Music education, rather than traditional interventions, might help close the gap.

Principal Cheryl Wilson says educators tried various strategies to increase engagement and learning, all without significant improvement, before launching the Music Immersion Experience (MIE) program during the 2015-16 school year.

Since its inception, Wilson has observed a more positive, supportive school environment. “The MIE program has changed our students’ lives,” Wilson says. “They are more confident in themselves, in their work and in their learning.”

In addition to the anecdotal evidence, the percentage of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders who have met or exceeded the standards on the Smarter Balanced Assessment’s English Language Arts exam has increased 27 points since the implementation of MIE. Math scores have increased by 15 points. Discipline incidents that require administrative action have dropped by 75%.

“We structured our program to accommodate a wide spectrum of interest level and aptitude,” says Samantha Theisen, the MIE program coordinator. “We believe that there are numerous ways to receive and provide music education, and the most impactful way is to create a community through like interests and passions.”

Mandatory participation

The MIE program borrows from the concept of El Sistema—a classical music program originating in Venezuela that uses music education to empower underserved young people. Roosevelt Elementary leaders were also inspired by other U.S. schools that implemented the idea, such as the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston.

The regular school day was extended to accommodate the program. Each student is automatically enrolled, and the district employs music specialists to deliver instruction in instrumental, choral and general music.

Music instructors collaborate with general classroom teachers, under the supervision of the program coordinator, to develop curriculum-aligned standards and to integrate academics within music to increase its relevance.

All students learn to play the violin beginning in first grade and can switch to a band instrument in fourth grade. Additional elective class options include piano, guitar, ukulele, rock band, mariachi band, hand bell choir, dance and Latin percussion.

Everyone has a stake

After numerous unsuccessful interventions, the district finally turned to music. During the 2014-15 school year, district leaders convened a committee of parents, administrators, teachers, union leaders and music education experts. The group spent a year researching other models, says Theisen.

“They also had a great deal of impassioned discussions with everyone who would have a stake in this program,” she says. “Before implementation in 2015, most stakeholders who weren’t comfortable with it either felt that their voice was heard or had been convinced to support it.”

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