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Jefferson Elementary Turns To Music For Academic Inspiration

During budget cuts, local school courses in arts and music are often the first to go. But what happens when a school, or district—goes against the trend and starts putting those classes back in? Jefferson county's elementary school is trying to find out.

The Motown version of The Wizard of Oz with Michael Jackson and Diana Ross was a hit in many households and now students are working to bring it to the stage in Jefferson County. It’s 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, and about 40 elementary schoolers are twisting, dipping, and bouncing as they rehearse their dance moves for the part of the show where Dorothy (played by Diana Ross) has just freed Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow. They’re about to set off in search of Oz.  Drama is just one of the elementary school’s offerings.

“[There's] orchestra, music theatre, voice, piano and music technology, and dance. In the summer we have art and animation, said Patrice Floyd.

She created the fine arts academy and placed it at Jefferson Elementary School. The program is funded through a federal program that foots the bill for opportunities at high-poverty and low-performing schools. Floyd’s music program includes lessons on math and reading.

“Some of the students, they couldn’t read, and they were shy about it. Our first show, you couldn’t hear them, said Floyd. Now, they’re confident. The arts build self-esteem, and it carries into the classroom.”  

“I think it’s the best thing we’ve got going right now and  we want to keep it going and make it even better," said Jefferson County School Superintendent Al Cooksey.

A student plays a cello during class.
A student plays a cello during class.

Jefferson County is largely rural. The school district and nearby state prison  are the largest employers. Cooksey is trying just about everything to boost both the morale and academic performance of his students.

“We’re a struggling school system, okay? And our school grades have been down for many, many years. It’s a transitional thing here—bringing fine arts into our schools. These kids probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to be taught by professional musicians like Dr. Floyd and her staff," he said.

Students are taking advantage of classes in piano, and even exercising their acting skills. Jefferson Elementary School Assistant Principal Elizabeth DeCardenas says teachers are seeing a difference in the classroom.

“There’s definitely a correlation between the music program and seeing an increase in scores in the classroom. Of course, the final outcome will be the FSA.”

The FSA is the Florida Standards Assessment and students across the state have started taking the state-based exam. Schools are graded on it, and teacher evaluations are tied to it. And school Principal Elijah Key is working hard to improve student performance on it.

"So, even Dr. Floyd will tell you, I told her I have no problem with it as long as you don’t interfere with testing and our prep in getting ready," he said.

Key says he likes the music program, but he’s also cautious.

“I’m looking at everything. Seeing is it worth it, and if there’s tweaking that needs to be done. But I think it’s worth it for our kids.”

There’s no definitive way to tell whether the program is working, but its supporters say there’s plenty of  evidence suggesting students who participate in the arts do better in class, and they’re hoping the millions of dollars invested in the program will be a boost for a district struggling to improve its schools.

*This story is part of a reporting partnership between WFSU and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s American Graduate Initiative.