District Music Education Program: Sound of Success

Otay Elementary parent Sandra Cadena and her family faced a difficult choice. Her husband took a job in Long Beach. Daughter Vanessa was deeply involved in her school’s Community Opus music education program. What to do? The family chose an extraordinary sacrifice. Cadena and her daughter are staying put in Chula Vista, and her husband commutes from Long Beach weekly or bi-weekly. Because of Community Opus.

“We’re not together, but it works. It works for Vanessa,” said Cadena. “Before this program, I would have to almost beg her to do her homework. Now, she has changed a lot. I don’t even have to remind her. She does her homework when she gets home. Her grades are better than in (prior) years.”Community Opus-1

Cadena thanked the Board of Education at its regular meeting on May 8, 2013, for the support of music education. Community Opus at Otay “has brought all of us parents closer together,” she said. “We now feel like a big family, a big music family.”

The Community Opus Project is a District initiative in partnership with the San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory, in turn part of the El Sistema movement in music education and social change. Dalouge Smith, President and Chief Executive Officer of the San Diego Youth Symphony, said CVESD schools are not the only ones feeling the impact.

“The whole project is a partnership project,” Smith said. “This is not about the youth symphony alone, this is about the Chula Vista community. …We have really seen the impact we are having on many, many layers of the community.”

For example, Community Opus Project produced a dramatic change in the demographics of the San Diego Youth Symphony. Today, 30 percent of its students are from Chula Vista. This number includes participants in the youth symphony’s advanced Balboa Park programs—a tremendous achievement.

Smith noted that the San Diego Youth Symphony began in 1946, at a time when there was a music program in every school. There were orchestras in high schools, and the very best students would come together and play more advanced music through the youth symphony.

In time, the youth symphony grew its program in Balboa Park to be multi-layered. “We no longer are exclusive to the very, very best students,” Smith said. “We are open to all students who want to play music in a group setting. However, this growth, which resulted in 600 youth at all levels, was not consistent across the county.”

In 2008, the youth symphony’s demographic reach across the county was very inconsistent. “Our lowest representation was here in the South Bay, at only 7 percent,” Smith said. “Our Board of Directors was interested in finding ways for the San Diego Youth Symphony to be a resource for the entire county, that the youth symphony not be just a resource exclusive to communities that already had a strong school music program, where parents could support private lessons.”

About the same time, Smith and his Board were inspired by reports of the Venezuelan music program called El Sistema, a national youth orchestra program that fosters music instruction in the lowest income neighborhoods. The program inspires social change by inspiring young people in music.

“The program is not about music only, it is about music and opportunity,” Smith said, adding that renowned classical conductor Gustavo Dudamel grew up in the El Sistema program and is now director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“We were very excited by this idea that music in the neighborhood could have a powerful effect not only on musical development, but on the learning of children and the bringing together of community,” Smith said. “We knew we wanted to work in the South Bay. We knew we wanted to work with children.”

Initially, the “Community Opus” program began at Otay and J. Calvin Lauderbach elementary schools, and soon grew to six campuses in the District. There are now 250 students in after-school hours at the six schools, and another 60 students in kindergarten hours. This year, in-school music instruction for all Grade 3 students was added at the six campuses—Harborside, Lauderbach, Otay, Lilian J. Rice, Rosebank, and Vista Square—which represents a seismic shift in education circles.

In addition, through the Promise Neighborhood grant program, Community Opus has started a pilot kindergarten music project for all kindergarteners at Castle Park Elementary. During the 2013-14 academic year, the school will have all students participate in music education, as well as offer instrumental music instruction after school.

Community Opus students were among the performers at the recent National School Boards Association conference, which was held in San Diego. CVESD Superintendent Francisco Escobedo, Ed.D., said that the students’ performance generated an incredible response from school board members across the country.

“Music is a unifying medium that solidifies knowledge, and the quest for knowledge,” Escobedo said. “Music is a way for students to open up their understanding of math in a conceptual way, as well as enhance their natural creativity. They learn not only to play an instrument, but also to work as a team. Kids create intense relationships with one another as they practice and perform together.”

Board Member Pamela B. Smith said the program seemed like a dream when it initially began with “no money, no instruments, no time, no anything.” However, the youth symphony’s commitment to make it happen, combined with the support of former Superintendent Lowell Billings, the support of current Superintendent Escobedo, Asst. Superintendent John M. Nelson III, Ed.D., and the school principals, is an inspiration, she said.

“It has just been wonderful. It is so great to look at the kids, it is even better to look at the parents—they are so proud. And we couldn’t do it without our partners,” she said.

The Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD), where most CVESD students feed into, has been a valuable contributor to the success of Community Opus, said Dalouge Smith. “They have opened up their campuses to our performances. We have done joint concerts with middle school and elementary school students,” he said. “We had nearly 1,000 people attending our last concert.”

CVESD’s Escobedo said the parent participation has been an “amazing plus” from Community Opus. “The greater the parent participation, the healthier the school, and the higher likelihood that children will go on to college,” Escobedo said.

View and hear a performance of Community Opus students from Lauderbach and Otay schools by clicking on the image below:

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