Each school day, about 90 students from East Palo Alto travel across county borders to the Palo Alto Unified School District -- a school bus trek that generally takes at least one hour in each direction. For students in the district's instrumental music programs, this used to involve the struggle of transporting a heavy instrument or running the risk of losing the instrument.
Keith Hunter recalls taking the bus ride as a part of his equity training prior to becoming a brass music instructor at Juana Briones Elementary School.
"Having that experience on the bus, getting car sick, spending over an hour getting to the destination ... kinda put it into perspective what these students are going through before the day even starts," said Hunter, who used his hands to show the cramped spaces between each bus seat. "I noticed in my first two years that those students tended to lose their instruments, forgot them more often or didn't practice. When looking at the numbers, the (instrumental music program) dropout rate was much higher than others. So I wanted to figure out what I could do with that to try to fix it."
This past year after Hunter and his colleagues submitted a proposal to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, the Palo Alto Unified School District received a $10,000 grant to provide low-income elementary school music students with loaner instruments to use at home. This grant eliminated the students' need to transport instruments to and from school. Each student has also been given a practice mute -- a bell-shaped contraption that diminishes the sound emitted from an instrument -- that helps students practice proper finger placements and breath techniques quietly within small spaces or apartments.
Before the grant, 90 percent of students who rode the bus quit the program and opted for choir after fifth grade. The co-writers of the grant proposal wanted to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in instrumental music programs past sixth grade.
"I think what we're looking for is the long-term changes," said Susan Macy, a winds instructor and grant co-writer. "What we're hoping for these students is that they have the opportunity to continue throughout the year without having to go back and forth with their instruments."
"You know there's the initial excitement of a new shiny instrument. ... Then they get to a point where it's hard and they get discouraged," district music director Nancy Coffey said. "Especially if they forget to take their instrument home, they lose it or they miss a couple classes. Then the interest falls off pretty quickly because they feel bad about what they're doing. I think especially with this group that has an instrument at home and one at school we're going to find that dip is not going to be there. They'll hopefully accelerate to the end and continue on with their instruments."
East Palo Alto resident Maynor Bacitzep, a fifth-grade clarinet player in Macy's winds class, said that he chose to play the clarinet in hopes of perfecting his wind instrument technique. After he has mastered the art of playing the clarinet, he hopes to progress to the saxophone.
"The saxophone sounded interesting," Bacitzep said with a smile. "(But) I want to improve; I want to stop squeaking."
Playing the clarinet, he said, has helped him feel more calm. He mentioned that his favorite song to play is "Happy Birthday." When he's not busy practicing, he enjoys reading comic books and playing games on his Nintendo Wii with his brother, a fourth-grader who currently plays the recorder.
Betsy Cacho, a fifth-grader and East Palo Alto resident in Hunter's music class, said that she chose to play the trumpet because she wanted to challenge herself. As the only female in her music class, she said that she enjoys being there because it has given her greater confidence. Although her older brother decided to join the choir program upon entering middle school, Cacho said that she would rather stay in the instrumental music program instead of singing. The young trumpeter has hopes to pursue a career in music.
"I wanted to be a veterinarian ... but when I see Mr. Hunter doing this," Cacho said, waving her hands in the fashion of a music conductor, "now I want to do that."
Each music teacher at Juana Briones School agreed that, above all, the main purpose of the grant is to give all students an equal chance to become a part of a musical community, which could help children feel as though they fit in and belong among their peers.
"One of the (goals) is to immerse these kids in the music culture. I see music as being one of those areas where we could easily get them into that culture and to keep them there and help them feel a part of the district," Hunter said. "I think there are a lot of challenges that they'll go through, so hopefully this is going to help separate music from being one of those things that's just stressful."
Donations to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund can be made at the Holiday Fund page here.