Starting next fall, about 153 sets of little fingers will be gliding bows across violins as the Juneau Alaska Music Matters program expands to two more Juneau elementary schools for the first time.
Glacier Valley Elementary School music teacher Lorrie Heagy started the program two years ago. The program started when Heagy became one of the first Abreau Fellows and learned the El Sistema method used in Venezuela — which pairs orchestra with family and community. The program is used as an at-risk intervention for students, and Glacier Valley is a Title I school, meaning it has a high umber of economically disadvantaged students.
Every kindergartner at the school made paper violins and violin pieces with their families at the start of the school year, and as they learned the names of the pieces, they were added to the paper instrument. When the youngsters learn proper care of the paper instrument, they upgrade to real violins. This current school year, Heagy expanded the program to include all of Glacier Valley’s first-graders. Both grades have the instruction during the school day.
In the upcoming year, Heagy plans to have an after-school offering for second-graders. Heagy said she doesn’t know exactly what that will look like just yet. She is surveying parents of the inaugural violin class to see what days and times are preferred to keep as many students involved with the program is possible. Twelve cellos also were purchased for second-graders to use next year.
“We’re looking at at least twice a week, but it could be more,” Heagy said. “We’re still in the gathering information process.”
JAMM has been getting national attention as well. It was referenced in Tricia Tunstall’s new book, “Changing Lives,” which talks about El Sistema. Heagy said Robert Gillespie, professor of music at Ohio State University, is interested in working with JAMM on a research study on the effect instrumental music has on academic and social development skills.
“I’m hoping this program can contribute to the national research,” Heagy said.
At a recent film showing at the Goldtown Nickelodeon of a documentary on El Sistema, Heagy said a woman who is from Cebu, Philippines, said there are two El Sistema programs in the United States that people are billing as “must sees” — one of which is Juneau’s. The other is in Rhode Island. The woman was visiting as a precursor to starting her own version.
“We’re really becoming a leader in this national movement because of this integrated model where you can start on a lower budget, because you’re working in the schools,” Heagy said. “It makes for a strong partnership and for a sustainable model.”
The low cost and model are helpful components in expanding the program to other Juneau School District elementary schools. Riverbend Elementary School, another Title I school, and Auke Bay Elementary School will start this coming school year offering JAMM to all kindergartners as part of the school day.
Glacier Valley’s 60 kindergartners, Riverbend’s 43 and Auke Bay’s 50 will make for about 153 students learning violin. Add the 60-or-so first-graders at Glacier Valley, and any second-graders who continue next year and that’s quite a lot of little ones learning strings.
While the program is relatively low-cost to run, and gets cheaper over time as teachers take up responsibilities of private instructors, they still raise funds for instruments. Ron and Kathy Maas have proposed a community challenge to meet JAMM’s need of $18,000 for instruments to support the two new schools. They will donate $6,000 and are proposing a challenge matching grant. So far, the challenge portion has raised $1,000. Ron Maas, who runs the Thunder Mountain Big Band, said if people want to donate they can do so by sending funds to Glacier Valley specifically for JAMM.
“We’re very much interested in promoting music in Juneau,” he said. “My wife plays violin in the symphony. I’ve known Lorrie Heagy for some time now and I’m very much impressed with what she’s doing out there.”
The Juneau Community Foundation also values the program, said Amy Skilbred, executive director, adding that they will be contributing $8,000 separately from Maas’ initiative.
“We believe it’s a real benefit to the community,” she said. “It gets both parents and kids involved with the school and what’s happening with their kids. I think Lorrie has started a terrific program that has increased standardized test scores. There is terrific involvement with parents, which is a factor in ensuring kids stay in school.”
This expansion means half of Juneau’s elementary schools will have the program.
“I think we really believe in what music and the arts can do for students,” said Lori Hoover, Auke Bay principal. “This is a program that really brings kids together and gives them an opportunity to experience music and learn music that’s beyond their music class.”
Hoover is excited about the program because of the studies that show what learning music at an early age does for academic skills.
“My big goal is that learning music and learning to appreciate music just helps in the big picture of how we want kids to develop,” she said. “If they can focus and learn to play violin that focus extends to all of their academic subjects. It can be taught in a fun way. It helps them socialize. In the big picture, yes, they’re learning music, but it’s a skill they can continue the rest of their life in reading music. That’s my main thing, we want them to be great students and this is one way kids learn academic skills is through music.”
Hoover said they are still planning for how exactly it will be implemented, but she knows they will be sharing resources with Glacier Valley and Riverbend to get started. The kindergarten teachers and music teacher will learn the process and how to implement JAMM.
Hoover said she hopes to be able to expand it to more grade levels like Glacier Valley did, but first they will see how the program works with Auke Bay and the community.
Auke Bay music teacher Sheryl Wittig said she’s been watching Heagy’s methods since before she was involved in El Sistema.
“I’ve been watching this program and how its progressing,” she said. “I’ve seen the data for how her students are improving in reading and the test scores — and seeing the kids perform, it’s very intriguing. I think it’s very interesting she has a program that all the kids are participating in, not just a handful of kids.”
Wittig said she hopes the program will give children the exposure to string instruments that they might not normally have had — and maybe find a new interest.
“It’s just the opportunity for all kids to try it,” she said. “I don’t necessarily think every kid is going to play violin all the way through school.”
Riverbend Principal Shannon Avenson said she is “really excited” to bring the program to the school.
“JAMM worked really hard to raise the money,” Avenson said. “Lorrie Heagy and Rebecca Ricker (Riverbend music teacher), they just did an outstanding job. We are going to be able to offer the kinder violin program during the school day next year. They will have three 30-minute lessons for violin. We’re getting that because Rebecca Ricker is willing to go above her contract and volunteer some hours.”
Ricker is a half-time specialist, who gives general music instruction to students kindergarten through fifth-grade.
“We know that the research shows that students who are actively involved in the arts are more successful at school,” Avenson said. “It is an intervention. It’s helping them learn patience and focus.”
Avenson said she will also have the experience both seeing how the program works as an administrator — and as a parent of two children who will be kindergartners next year.
“Basically, what we’re hoping is to see the parent support and the community support that has really been so successful at Glacier Valley,” Avenson said. “What we’re seeing at Glacier Valley is just outstanding the progress students are making academically and musically is just inspiring.”
Heagy said they are fortunate to have Diane Barnett, who has been training with Glacier Valley with both kindergarten and first grade. She said Barnett is an elementary Master of Arts in Teaching graduate from the University of Alaska Southeast and has been studying with Xia GuoHua, the violin instructor working with JAMM.
“She comes with a lot of expertise and credentials to be working with the schools and this program, and she’s excited about it,” Heagy said. “She loves working with young students.”
Barnett will work like GuoHua does at Glacier Valley — as an instructor to not only the students, but also as an instructor for the elementary and music teachers to teach their students violin.
• Contact reporter Sarah Day at email@example.com.