The music teacher at Middle School 390 in the Bronx had just finished teaching three and half hours of general music classes, when six of her orchestra students appeared at the door. Permission slips in hand, the students asked Andrea Maire to let them in to practice their instruments rather than go to math class.
“No, go back to your class. I’ll talk to your teacher,” said Maire, a former freelance musician who graduated from Teachers College at Columbia University, as she escorted the students back to math class.
Still, the students’ enthusiasm was heartening to Maire, M.S. 390’s first certified music teacher in the 16 years since the school was established. She was hired last year with money provided by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new $92 million four-year arts education initiative, intended primarily for schools in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Nearly all of M.S. 390’s 400 black and Latino students live beneath the poverty level. Maire splits her time between this school and M.S. 447. Her salary is paid jointly by the two schools and city’s Department of Education.
When she first arrived at M.S. 390, Maire discovered that many students did not know what classical instruments looked like. “They thought these were guitars,” Maire said, pointing to her collection of violins. She was given a budget of $1,000 to buy violins, violas, cellos, rugs and music stands a few months after she came to the school. Before that, the students were taping music sheets to the backs of chairs.
Andrea Maire and her orchestra practice three days a week. (Timmy H.M. Shen / The Ink)
Now she teaches more than 100 students, and has a 15-piece orchestra, half of whom are clamoring to practice. The students’ progress does not cease to surprise her. Last year, the orchestra played for the school’s graduation ceremony at a nearby city park. “I filmed it and showed it to my musician friends,” said Maire. “They couldn’t believe that the kids had only picked up the instruments six months before that.”
Besides music, as of last year, eight more teaching artists has been offering photography, singing, modern dance, acting, sound production and fashion training to the students at M.S. 390 after school. These programs are provided by DreamYard Project, a nonprofit organization which received a separate grant of $273,000 this year from the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development to conduct a comprehensive after-school program at M.S. 390.
The arts education gives the students an opportunity to express themselves, according to Robert Mercedes, the principal of M.S. 390. “A lot of them might not be traditional students. A lot of them have issues. Music gives them the opportunity to really get to build up that self-esteem,” he said.
M.S. 390 is among 94 schools that have received the new mayoral arts education funding, half of them in the Bronx. Doug Israel, director of research and policy at The Center for Arts Education, who has been tracking the progress of the city’s arts education initiatives, said 69 new certified arts teachers have been hired and placed in these schools.
“The benefits of arts education are more pronounced for the underserved kids and those with special needs,” said Israel. Art helps engage kids who have difficulty focusing or sitting still and listening to lectures. High dropout rates and lack of attention are the challenges the schools face. “Art gives them something to look forward to each school day,” he said. “The projects require the students not just to memorize but to actually do.”
De Blasio’s initiative came in response to a hard-hitting city comptroller report last year on the lack of arts education in the city’s schools. Comptroller Scott Stringer revealed in his 2014 report that more than 42 percent of schools in the city’s low-income areas lacked certified arts teachers. Seven years earlier, Michael Bloomberg’s administration had eliminated mandated funding for arts education, allowing school principals to decide how they would use their funds.
Since the emphasis during the Bloomberg administration was on raising math and reading scores, principals tended to de-emphasize investing in the arts. Funding for arts and cultural partnerships dropped by about 50 percent and those for art supplies and instruments dropped by about 80 percent over the seven-year period, according to the comptroller’s report.
Gian Mercado (middle) comes to the orchestra room to practice during lunch break. (Timmy H.M. Shen / The Ink)
Maire teaches three days a week at M.S. 390, and the other two days at M.S. 447. Her job is never easy as she is the only certified arts teacher at M.S. 390.
Meanwhile, Maire is pleased with the reception in the school. “The principal and the faculty are really supportive,” said Maire, as her orchestra students streamed into the music class for practice during their lunch break.
Gian Mercado, an eighth grade cellist, took over in a leadership role, arranging music stands and handing out instruments. Gian had first shown up in the orchestra room last January, months after 25 other students had already started learning. Maire was reluctant to take him on as another beginner.
“He just sat there watching for weeks,” said Maire. “He was extremely determined, so I finally gave him a private lesson on the cello. And he took off. He really did.”
Two new orchestra members pick up violins for the first time in their lives. (Timmy H.M. Shen / The Ink)
Gian had no prior experience with music before he joined the orchestra. “When you actually learn it, you get addicted to it,” said Gian, grinning at his teacher. “Like cocaine.”
“Which you don’t know anything about, and never will,” Maire quickly added.
Teamwork is also part of the takeaways from music learning. The kids have to open their ears, paying attention to fellow members’ music while managing their own. “They don’t fight here,” said Maire. “They would just stop even if they have issues with each other outside.”
Maire has begun to recruit new members, which means a greater workload. Dismissing the kids for lunch, Maire kept two new members for an extra private lesson on the violins. “She never really takes a break,” said Guillermina Ceballos, the social worker at M.S. 390. “She is really dedicated to her students.”