School Finds Music Is the Food of Learning

The principal, unsmiling in his jacket and tie, launched himself into the air, jumping up and down at the back of the gymnasium, waving frantically at more than 100 first graders as they rehearsed for their holiday concert.

Franklin Headley, the principal, was bouncing around to prepare the children for a room full of grinning, waving adults who would come to watch them perform the next day, and he asked the students not to wave back. A few giggles bubbled up from gaptoothed faces, but the students, partway through a cheery rendition of “I Got Rhythm,” kept on singing.

Calendars are awash this time of year in holiday-themed pageants, but the mainly straight-faced students crooning in that gym are much better prepared for the season than most. They are pupils at Voice Charter Schoolin Queens, where students learn to read music, execute complicated harmonies and play a little piano in the music classes they attend at least once a day, and where, far more than in other general education schools, they learn to sing, sing, sing.

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Finding Their Voice

At the Voice Charter School in Queens, students sing every day. It’s part of a curriculum that combines arts education and choral singing.

Video by Natalia V. Osipova and Ashley Maas on Publish DateDecember 19, 2014.Photo by Bryan Thomas for The New York Times.

The gym was standing room only for the performance the next night.

“Please don’t wave at your children,” Mr. Headley said to a room packed with whispered Spanish, head scarves and the occasional bindi. “We want them to be trained, competent musicians.”

Nonetheless, one first-grade boy, stage left during the performance of “I Got Rhythm,” waved furtively. And it would not be an event full of small children if someone did not throw up. Someone did.

Ultimately, these little disturbances were just fine, because Voice is not trying to train aspiring professionals.

“They learn how to be really good at something,” Mr. Headley said. “We believe that then translates into everything else.”

In an era of dwindling attention to the arts in public schools, Voice is now in its seventh year. Mr. Headley founded the school after learning that music and movement might improve language acquisition, he said, a concept he came across while he was studying at a principal training program calledNew Leaders. Voice started with kindergarten and has added one new grade each year; it expects to reach its full complement of kindergarten through eighth grade in the fall.

Today, the school has just shy of 600 students spread between two buildings in Long Island City; one of them used to be a Catholic school. Bells from St. Rita’s Roman Catholic Church, right next door, chime throughout the day. Seventy percent of the students qualified for free lunch last year, according to city data. Like other New York charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, it admits students through a lottery. No one auditions.

Academically, students at Voice did significantly better than the city average on New York State math exams last year, with 70 percent of its students passing, compared with 39 percent citywide. Their English performance was less impressive, but with 39 percent passing, it still beat the citywide average of 30 percent.

The children, each in a uniform of a sky-blue shirt and navy skirt or slacks, are instructed to be quiet in the hallways and asked not to shriek during gym class, to protect order as well as their voices. But what really distinguishes the school are the sounds. Songs in English, Spanish, Japanese and German drift through the buildings, pens rhythmically tap against any convenient hard surface, and little bursts of music surface even where they are not meant to be.

“There’s a lot of humming, especially right after choir class,” Kate Athens, a fourth-grade teacher, said. “They’re not doing it to be disruptive; it’s just stuck in their heads.”

Humming aside, Ms. Athens, a fourth-year teacher who has never taught elsewhere, said the students appeared to learn skills in their music lessons that translated to her classroom.

“They learn to stick with something hard and breaking things down into steps,” she said. “And work together as a group at such a young age.”

All this pops especially brightly against the drab state of the arts in New York City public schools at large, where a report by the comptroller this spring found that spending on arts supplies and equipment fell by 84 percent from 2006 to 2013. The report also found that 20 percent of public schools had no arts teachers at all, and that the dearth in arts education was especially dire in low-income areas. The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has since increased arts funding and pledged to hire 120 new arts teachers in middle and high schools, where state law requires arts instruction.

Younger students at Voice usually have music twice a day, and older students once, on average. But so much time spent on music is not without its price. To make room for those courses, the school day is unusually long, from 7:55 a.m. to 4:25 p.m., which can be hard for small children (as a nonunion school, it has more power to set its own hours).

“The hardest part about school, I think, is that there are so many hours in the day, because after a while, everyone seems to get a little more tired, on edge,” said Delaiah Robinson, 11. “I live kind of far away from the school, so I get home pretty late.”

Karina Sinche, whose son Xavier, 6, is in first grade, said her son had no particular interest in music before applying to Voice, but after visiting the neighborhood public school — where the detail that most stuck in her mind was of a security guard napping — she decided to apply to Voice and several other charter schools.

“Now, when he’s walking around the grocery store, he starts singing,” Ms. Sinche said.

Like Xavier, most of the students at Voice do not come to the school specifically for its most defining feature, and some of them, Mr. Headley said, seem to stumble on the school entirely by accident.

“They’ll say, ‘Oh, I thought this was free music lessons.’

“They weren’t looking for us, but they found us,” he added. “Every year.”

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