The sweet sound of learning


The Indiana state legislature approved an expansion of charter schools, along with a voucher program to allow low-income families use private schools at taxpayer expense. And the Indiana Department of Education is taking over several Indianapolis public schools that had poor test results for several years.

More quietly, without leaping into these debates, band teacher Gary Doherty is attempting a smaller revolution with music at an urban high school in Indianapolis.

One example: Arsenal Technical High School senior Eric Cervantes practices the oboe 90 minutes a day during orchestra season. That dedication is paying off well beyond the music room.

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In middle school, Eric struggled in his classes. "Nothing drove my studies," he said. But now he hopes to attend Indiana University, Ball State, or Butler to study music education.

Eric isn't alone in marching toward success with the help of a musical beat. Last year, 98 percent of the seniors in Tech's band graduated from high school. Doherty, who was named national band director of the year by the National Association of Music Educators last year, started with a dozen musicians three years ago. This fall he boosted the band to more than 100 students.

The Tech band seems to verify the Mozart effect, a theory that the discipline involved in studying music carries over into gains in the rest of education. The new Shepherd Tech Arts Resources Team (START) hopes to use that Mozart effect to boost learning across the curriculum. The START booster club includes a mix of Shepherd Community Center (a Christian poverty-fighting ministry) resources along with civic leaders such as former Indiana Lt. Gov. Kathy Davis and Indiana State Museum President Tom King.

"What music provides is a peer-influenced gang that helps each achieve success through a complex set of skills," said Matt Carter, who runs Music Crossroads for the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association, an effort to attract national music groups to the city. "The skill sets in music will equip them with skills for academics and life success beyond high school. In music you have comprehensive learning of a high order-reading a note on a page and playing the note on the instrument, listening to musicians on either side, at the behest of a conductor."

The band has been invited to the 70th anniversary memorial for Pearl Harbor, but boosters have to raise $300,000 for the early December trip to Hawaii. (Donations can be made to a special fund at the Shepherd website.)

Some wondered about spending so much money on one trip. Shepherd Community Center director Jay Height advised going for it. "These kids traveling outside their ZIP code changes the arc of their expectations about life," he explained.

This musical initiative works outside the education reform debate and all its controversies. Their band booster efforts, though, qualify for inclusion in real education reform.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.


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