Going off to kindergarten is a tough transition for children in the best of times. In a pandemic where teachers are on a screen and recess playtime with classmates is non-existent, “going” to the first year of elementary school adds even more of a challenge for teachers and students alike. So when a mix of crowd sourcing, grants, community support and a local nonprofit converged to purchase classroom sets of ukuleles and provide lessons for all three kindergarten classes at Clay Elementary, it was a “bright spot” in the school year, according to Clay kindergarten teacher Sabrina Young.
“So all of our kids had ukuleles and we were just really excited,” she said, adding that new ukulele program was a much needed boost to the morale of pandemic-weary students and teachers. “It was just dragging on with Zoom, online, the enthusiasm was waning and we got to bring them each a new ukulele — a yellow one, a pink one, or a blue one and new carrying case — and that breathed new life into their excitement about school.”
The ukulele program at Clay grew out a summer program that some teachers at Clay enrolled in put on by the local nonprofit Guitars In The Classroom (GITC), that instructs teachers on playing ukulele and its benefits of teaching the instrument in their classrooms. The teachers were inspired to start classroom ukulele programs and because Clay is a STEAM school — one that focuses on science, technology, engineering, arts and math — GITC offered to help Clay in grant writing and other fundraising to purchase classroom sets of instruments. The teachers also looked to Donors Choose, an online crowd sourcing platform specifically for school projects.
“We called our project ‘Strumming for STEAM’ and posted to Donors Choose to try to get a classroom set of ukuleles by going 10 at a time,” Young said.
GITC then wrote a grant and offered to bring in one of their artists in residence — Dan Decker, a credentialed teacher who has taught kindergarten previously — to teach the entire kindergarten grade level for 10 weeks.
The final push of fundraising that enabled Clay to purchase the 75 ukuleles needed to provide all its kindergarteners an instrument came from a connection with Young’s neighbor Kara Camden, who stepped in and offered to help raise money through the Rolando Community Council (RCC).
Back in October, Camden started an RCC committee to integrate to Clay and provide opportunities for the community to volunteer and support its local school.
“It just felt like a good time to be of service,” she said.
That service — from, as Young points out, a neighbor that doesn’t even have a child attending Clay — has been a missing ingredient at the school. Young said her previous school she taught at had a foundation to raise money for school projects and Clay doesn’t have one. She said both she and Camden immediately envisioned RCC’s role as a kind of surrogate foundation that can act as a liaison for the school and the wider Rolando community and also raise money for school projects — and not just ukuleles.
“We’ve also been very active in advancing the idea of a track at Clay Elementary. We’d love to see a track on the joint use field. All the neighboring schools have tracks but Clay doesn’t,” Camden said, adding that the committee has been meeting with their City Council representative and the parks department. “But, we’ve been told this can take 40 years.”
The RCC/Clay group is also interested in facilitating a kind of “speakers
bureau,” Camden said.
“If Rolando neighbors have an area of expertise or passion or hobby that they can share that with the kids. We want to connect in that way.”
RCC will also continue to help raise money for the ukulele program as it expands, which is likely considering the many applications of music to Clay’s STEAM program.
Young points out that the ukulele instruction has already been instrumental as a teaching aid in areas like science by connecting a theme song to the school’s animal ambassador program, and learning songs to sing is helpful in language development.
“It’s really hard to teach phonics wearing a mask, so this just gives us an extra edge in a little bit more joyful way in approaching what we are doing,” she said.
—Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at [email protected]