Ukuleles could eventually be right alongside books and computers in classrooms all over the country.
That's the goal of the San Diego-based nonprofit, Guitars in the Classroom.
That group is responsible for donating thousands of the small, stringed instruments to schools all over the U.S.
The group's founder, Jessica Baron, says the ukuleles can be a powerful and creative tool for students and teachers. The group uses ukuleles because they are smaller, easier to play and less expensive, but the main mission goes beyond just putting instruments in classrooms. Baron wants to teach the teachers.
Over the past 10 years, the group has trained more than 11,000 teachers in 32 states to play a musical instrument. 900 of those were trained in San Diego County.
This comes at a time when music teachers and programs all over the country are being cut. Baron says in addition to advocating for music programs to stay in schools, her group also aims to train traditional teachers how to incorporate music in their other subjects.
“What we’re doing is building capacity in the teachers to comfortably lead and teach through music, so that children feel that music is just a natural part of what they’re learning,” says Baron. “When we’re teaching language arts or math through music, it becomes a joyful experience. So, it’s not just your frontal cortex going. We’re actually deeply engaged and excited about the learning.”
Ocean Beach Elementary School is one of the schools where Baron’s program is used by multiple teachers, to help kids young as kindergarten age.
There are now multiple instruments in most of the school’s classrooms. Principal Marco Drapeau calls the program a blessing, and said he’s not sure how they would get music into classes without it.
“We’d be back to where we were, which is teacher-driven, on any given day if anybody has the heart and passion for it, but that’s not really any type of sustainable program,” said Drapeau.
“There’s so much research around how the arts can help brain development," he continued. "This is not something we find time for. This is something that has to be a strong component in any child’s education."
Ocean Beach Elementary is part of a district dealing with the reality of cutting arts in classrooms right now.
The San Diego Unified District is facing a $124 million budget deficit. Elementary schools could be the hardest hit.
Some people are worried that could cause a domino effect as those kids get older and start middle and high school without any earlier exposure to music. It’s a problem the district’s director of Visual and Performing Arts, Russ Sperling, acknowleged.
“That's something we'll have to strategize with middle school teachers about. If we have students coming in in sixth grade and they haven't had band, orchestra, or choir in middle school, then we'll have to have some beginning courses available," said Sperling.
There are 135 teachers in the San Diego region that have gone through the Guitars in the Classroom training.
Jessica Baron is hoping for a lot more, and hopes to make sure no teacher has to pay for the training.
“We hope the schools can pay, but we understand what’s going on here,” said Baron.
She says the bottom line is getting musical instruments into the hands of kids, and music into their minds as early as possible.
“When we get this started in an elementary school, we make sure every child has access. Every child is going to learn.”