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So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

In jazz-loving Culver City, music instruction starts in kindergarten

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Kindergarten students at El Rincon Elementary school in Culver City know something most kids their age don't: how to read music. 

They know the difference between whole notes and a half note and during a recent morning, expertly clapped and counted out a few measures.

"It felt like I was on a stage and singing," said five-year-old Allisson Rastelli, who wants to be a singer when she grows up.

The success of these public school students at a time when most of their peers are still mastering the alphabet can be largely credited to the Symphonic Jazz Orchestra.

The non-profit provides half-hour music sessions for 16 weeks to about 400 of the district's 500 kindergarteners. The 67-member orchestra also performs occasional concerts in local venues.

"Culver City district has always been really, really supportive of the fine arts, and that's something that's really difficult," said Kindergarten teacher Diane DiFranco, whose students participate in the class. "You don't really see that too much in other districts because of budget cuts."

The jazz is one piece of a rich arts plan that the district has been refining since 2003.  Today, the district provides access to a variety of arts disciplines to students from Kindergarten to 12th grade. 

Its arts program is graduated, with instruction in upper years building on that provided during the early years. By fourth grade, the kindergarteners at El Rincon will be able to join the orchestra, for instance.

Arts instruction is also embedded into the teaching style in Culver City Unified schools. All elementary students in the district receive arts instruction every day, according to one district official. In middle and high school, students have access to extensive dance and theater training as well as coursework in film, ceramics, painting and photography, among other art forms.

"This wouldn't be possible if this wasn't an environment that collectively embraced the whole child," said Dave LaRose, the district's superintendent.

He said arts access in the district didn't spring from grants or geographical location - but because residents, district staff and the local school board are committed to the arts. 

"People work at this," he said. "You have teams and staff that are dedicated to teaching and learning. And this is woven in. It's integrated."

Several outside supporters fund part of the district's arts offerings. Sony, which houses its film lot in Culver City, contributes $25,000 per year to arts education and separately funds a few outside organizations who provide arts ed programing for the district.

The Fineshriber Family Foundation is also a major contributor. In all, the district estimates that outside funders contribute more than $320,000 a year toward arts ed. 

But the district's arts coordinator, Kevin Kronfeld, said districts without those extra donations can still replicate a lot of what Culver City Unified has done. For one, high school art teachers can train elementary school teachers.

"It doesn't take a lot money," he said. "What it takes is a committed staff who's willing to learn."

The Symphonic Jazz Orchestra started teaching kindergarteners in the district as a pilot program in 2011. It's in its second full year. The program costs about $85,000 per year for K-third graders.

Prior to 2011, Kindergarten students at Culver City Unified's Farragut Elementary received music instruction through a program called Do Re Mi. That program is still running and provides instruction for 28 weeks during the school year.

Kindergarten teacher Benjamin Knight, also of El Rincon Elementary, has watched his students blossom since specialized music instruction was added to their school.

"There's definitely a connection that's going to hopefully get them into instruments sooner or in bigger numbers," Knight said.

Knight also teaches the school's chorus and said he's seen the number of first grade chorus students jump since the Kindergarten symphonic jazz program began.

Knight regularly weaves music instruction into other lessons throughout the school day. It helps break up the work and manage the energy of young learners, he said. 

"If you try to do instruction for too long without giving them a chance to move they're going to start talking to each other, they're going to start wiggling," Knight said.

He uses music to keep his students engaged. On a recent visit, he picked a student to play the keyboard and then led his class through a simple song that listed their vocabulary words.

"Magnet," Knight sang.

"Magnet," his students sang back, as they followed him through a series of words they're learning in class. 

When they were done, there were just a few minutes to go before the kids had to dash off to P.E. So Knight grabbed the guitar and sang a sweet lullaby about spiders. His students joined in.

"When I woke up this morning - spin spider, spin," the class sang together. "Just as the day was dawning - spin spider, spin."

Incorporating these skills into other subjects helps kindergarteners absorb information, said Mitch Glickman, the co-music director of the Symphonic Jazz Orchestra, which was founded in 2001. 

"At this age they are incredibly tactile, creative creatures. They need to move, they need to sing, they need to dance," he said. "Not to have it, is just working against their natural way of learning."

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