Darius wasn’t quite sure about orchestra class when he started his sixth grade year at Longfellow Middle School. He had never played an instrument but in his first week, he was handed a double bass.
It was an imposing string instrument. The top of it was nearly parallel to the crown of Darius’ head, and from certain angles, it obscured his entire body.
Darius’ Teacher Aurelia Rocha put her student at ease – she prompted him on the proper way to hold his instrument and directed him on how to place his fingers on the strings.
When the entire class practiced how to hold their bows, Rocha singled out Darius, complimenting how he handled the large, and somewhat clunky, bow for the double bass.
“I didn’t know if I really wanted to be in orchestra, but during my first week, I decided I liked it,” Darius said. “It didn’t turn out to be so hard to learn and I love the sounds.”
Darius is able to learn from Rocha because of a new San Antonio Independent School District program that brings working artists into the classroom. The program places art teachers at schools that might not have otherwise had such an offering.
As the district has transitioned to an academy model – creating kindergarten through eighth grade continuums at schools that previously served a smaller number of grades – middle school students have been split into smaller groups.
“At 1,600 or 1,700 kids, you can offer every fine arts option that we have in our course load,” Executive Director of Fine Arts Daniel Loudenback said. “We can’t do that at an academy where we may only have 700 kids split between three grade levels. We can’t afford to hire seven full-time faculty members just to keep fine arts at a small school like that.”
As a result, SAISD turned to art organizations around the city and asked if any working artists would be interested in becoming contract employees to teach a few periods at various schools.
Loudenback arranged for instructors to help with new programs in band, choir, mariachi, orchestra, dance, theater, and visual arts.
In total, the partnerships created 36 new programs and 41 new positions at 29 SAISD campuses, Loudenback said.
Rocha, who found out about the program through the Tobin Center, began teaching two periods of orchestra at Longfellow and a third at Brackenridge High School for a smaller group of advanced students.
The Tobin Center placed instructors at 20 different campuses in SAISD.
Rocha’s background is in adult and higher education, although most of her experience has been at the community college and four-year university level.
The arrangement allows artists who might not want to be “tied down with an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job” to educate students in things about which they are passionate, Loudenback said.
“I wanted to do this simply because I think it will make me a stronger teacher,” Rocha said. “It is very different from college teaching, you know. When I walk into a music theory classroom or sit with cello students, I’m almost guaranteed that every student in that class really wants to be there. This has not always been the case for orchestra at middle school or high school. Some kids are just trying it out.”
That means Rocha has to start with the basics at Longfellow: she typically begins class by having students exercise their fingers on their bows, flexing the tiny muscles that will be needed to play complicated songs.
Later in the class period, students work in groups on sections of music. On a recent Thursday, Rocha had her student ensemble orchestra working on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”
All but one of Rocha’s Longfellow students in her first-period class are beginners. The one student with experience is Ivori, a seventh grader who has been playing the cello since fifth grade.
During group time, Ivori helps her peers perfect holds on their instruments and shows them where to place their fingers.
“I like helping them because I know it will make us a better ensemble together,” Ivori said.
Nearby at Margil Academy, Cassidy Fritts serves as a visual arts instructor as part of the working artist partnership. Fritts, who normally works as a visual arts instructor at SAY Sí for high school and middle school students, teaches sixth and seventh grade art in SAISD.
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SAY Sí placed 10 teaching artists in the district for the program.
Fritts instructs about 35 students between two periods but doesn’t have an actual classroom. She stores her art supplies in the music teachers’ space and brings a cart from class to class where her students are located.
“Creative youth development is vital to kids and how they grow, not only because art is important for you to be healthy, but I think art teaches leadership and I want kids to feel like they can be some kind of leader wherever they go,” Fritts said.
Loudenback agrees that participating in the programs Fritts and Rocha teach enable growth for students outside the classroom, or in Fritts’ case away from the art cart. He’s eager to point to the academic gains realized by students who also take fine arts classes.
“There’s just a ton of data and research to back it up,” Loudenback said. “We track student data comparing students that are better involved in fine arts over the course of several years versus students who are not involved in fine arts. The fine arts students outperform non-fine arts students in every category.”