A unique middle school music program improves school experiences and is changing school culture.
Jonathan De Leon set out from New Jersey in 2007 and he saw immediate possibilities in North Miami Middle School, which was regarded as a low achieving school De Leon saw the potential in both the school and the students, despite the fact that there was not much of a music program to start with.
When he arrived, De Leon says he remembers a “nonexistent” music program with no instrumental electives and an over-enrolled chorus class, the only option available.
“I started here in 2007 as a social studies teacher and it was both challenging and wonderful,” said De Leon, 28. “Teaching history was great, but my passion has always been music.”
That passion gave impetus to what administrators, teachers and students at the school are calling a culture change: a transformation that started with the music program.
De Leon, who moved over to teaching music, helped write a grant proposal that gave the music department a much-needed blessing: a $14,000 grant from Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, funding new instruments and repairing broken ones. The guitars — 18 in total — arrived in February along with a new piccolo, a sousaphone and $4,750 allotted for repairs.
The foundation, inspired by the 1995 film, Mr. Holland’s Opus, funds school music programs across the country with new or refurbished instruments, plus money to support their initiatives.
Every year the foundation, based out of Studio City, Calif., receives hundreds of applications from schools nationwide. In this year’s grant cycle, Tricia Steel, the foundation’s program director, said she received approximately 500 grant proposals — and selected only 80 schools.
What set De Leon and North Miami Middle apart from the other schools, Steel said, was their story.
“We could tell in the past three years — specifically under the new administration — the climate of the school has really changed,” she said.
Among the changes: In 2008, a new building and a new magnet school with three academies — museum, international education and communications — and in 2011, a new principal, Alberto Iber, and a new music program.
From her interviews, Steel said she knew North Miami Middle had its share of problems. About 96 percent of the students were on free or reduced lunch and the socio-economic conditions of many families were not ideal.
Yet De Leon and band director LaToya Harris recruited almost half of the school’s student population into the music program — roughly 500 students. And the emphasis on music, with its discipline and training, has led to fewer behavioral issues among the students, which have declined by 30 percent, Iber said.
Additionally, the school is improving academically, he added. Although it is still ranked a C school, the school’s cumulative points last year rose from 513 to 536 points.
“We’re 24 points away from a B this year,” said Iber, which if it were to get this accolade, would be the first time in the school’s history.
Nehemiah Augustin, an eighth-grader at North Miami Middle and student band leader, said he is inspired by the band and the recognition and funding it has begun to receive.
“The money is developing the band into a whole new level,” said Nehemiah, 13, who has been in the band three years. “It will change how people look at the school.”
De Leon said he knew the competition for securing the grant would be great.
“I’m still floored that they chose us,” De Leon said. “The fact that we were able to get in with a cold application is a real testament to how committed they are to keeping music alive in our schools.”
Read about the effect of a music program