In one Yakima elementary school children struggle with poverty, gangs and academic challenges but a classical music program hopes to change their lives for the better. Northwest Public Radio's Sueann Ramella went to the school for a closer look... and listen.
In Garfield elementary school, the secretary asks for my driver’s license. It's used to make my visitor pass and to run my name through the sex offender registry and the local police database. Garfield Elementary is in District 4, an area that once had the highest crime rate in the city. Yakima police say this year it’s dropped to second place.
Many Garfield students have experienced home life trauma. Some have lost a parent, nearly all live in poverty. But the mood is lifted when the final bell rings at 3:30. But not everyone is heading home - some are staying to make music.
“I’ve heard kids that come from this type of neighborhood described as at risk and I’ve also heard a phrase that I love that our kids are described as at promise!” Stephanie Hsu says.
Hsu is a New York transplant. Three years ago she moved to Yakima and with the help of community members started Yakima Music en Accion, or YAMA. It is based on El Sistema, a program in Venezuela that uses music as a tool for social change in the poorest communities. Through the learning of music students build confidence, self-esteem and responsibility.
“A really big part of the El Sistema philosophy is the greater the need, the more likely we are to start an orchestra there," Hsu says.
YAMA employs professional musicians to teach students in ensemble groups two hours a day after school. It’s like team sports, but with violins, cellos and violas. YAMA is responsible for 75% of its operating budget with most funds coming from fundraising and additional support from the Yakima Symphony and the Yakima School District.
Garfield Elementary School principal Alan Matsumoto greets kids on their way to practice. After he learned about El Sistema he started to dream about how his kids could benefit from it.
“I’ve been here almost 15 years now and the first couple of years, boys would come up to me and they’d just tell me, ‘I’m gonna be in a gang. That’s what my brothers did before me and that’s what I’m gonna do.’ YAMA gives kids an alternative and hope,” Matsumoto says.
Stephanie Hsu agrees.
“One thing I believe because I hear a lot of kids say this, is that they feel safe at YAMA," Hsu says. "When kids feel safe and when they come running every day just to be in the energy and to work hard and support each other… there’s a lot of beauty that grows from that.”
One of those kids is Arisbeidi Camacho, a 5th grader.
“Every time we would perform in YAMA it gave me the confidence to keep on performing. To keep trying my hardest," Arisbeidi says.
Her teacher, Amy Moloso noticed Arisbeidi improving in school. “Across the classroom her reading has gone from 84 to 181 words read correct. That is a huge improvement.”
“The reason I was shy is because I felt like it wasn’t O.K. for me to be making mistakes,” Arisbeidi says. “When you start out on the viola you know that you make sounds that aren’t quite right. With the YAMA students they understand you make mistakes and that’s how you learn,”
There are 62 official El Sistema programs in the United States, many in major cities including Seattle, and Los Angeles. That’s where one graduate of El Sistema in Venezuela, Gustavo Dudamel, now leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
56 kids are currently in YAMA. A handful may graduate in 4 years. YAMA and El Sistema USA are collecting data on students, and expect the statistics to show the benefits of the program on academics and graduation rates.
Arisbeidi hopes to be one of those graduates and has big dreams: “I want to be president!”
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