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Arts Programs Thrive at The O'Farrell Charter School

O'Farrell Elementary music students dancing
Students in music work on more than playing instruments. They also sing and learn dances from various cultures. Here, elementary school students practice their dancing skills in music class.

By Sarah Beauchemin

Budget cuts to public school programs are, unfortunately, nothing new. School districts across the nation have been struggling for years to maintain adequate funding for their educational programs, especially the arts and humanities.

In fact, San Diego Unified School District is proposing a budget cut to music and art programs of up to $4.5 million in 2018 – something that, if passed, will greatly detract from the overall educational experience of San Diego’s youth.

But luckily, these SDUSD proposed budget cuts would not apply to all local schools. One school that would be exempt from these cuts is The O’Farrell Charter School, a leading San Diego TK-12 charter school.

Since OCS is an independent charter school, they are able to make budgetary decisions based on their own student population’s needs – which includes having a thriving arts program.

Parents have a choice in which schools they enroll their children. Visit ofarrellschool.org for more information about OCS’s academic and enrichment programs, as well as information on enrollment.

OCS offers music, art, and other enrichment electives to all students, beginning in elementary school up through high school.

For example, all OCS elementary school students take music and Spanish. In the OCS middle school, all students have an elective and may choose a class in music, art, Spanish, AVID, and a number of other programs.

And in the high school, OCS students may use their elective to choose from photography, theatre, art, music, and many other classes.

Helping At-Risk Youth Through the Arts

Instead of cutting funding to arts programs, OCS makes sure to keep such budgets healthy and robust, as they firmly believe that teaching students the arts will help them academically, build confidence and will also increase school engagement.

Arts programs at schools like OCS – which serve mostly marginalized communities – are especially important because they give underrepresented youth a formal, structured opportunity to engage with art that they likely wouldn’t have otherwise.

What’s more, National Endowment for the Arts research shows there are many potential benefits of at-risk youth engaging in the arts. Key findings include better academic outcomes, higher career goals and becoming more civically engaged – all of which are fundamental components of OCS’s mission.

Music Forms Strong Social & Academic Connections

One of the core arts programs that OCS offers is their comprehensive music program, introduced to students in kindergarten and continually built upon through their senior year of high school.

O'Farrell elementary music students
Students in the elementary school all attend music twice weekly. Here, they learn rhythm, rhyming, and the foundations of music. They put on two performances per year.

Xkylyr Rauh, music instructor at the OCS elementary school for the past seven years, works with nearly 500 students ages five to 11 several times a week.

Rauh starts kindergartners off with “voice exploration” activities and how to differentiate between even and uneven beats. First through fifth graders practice instruments like the xylophone and recorder, and even learn to recreate popular songs on the radio.

Rauh’s goal is to help all students describe what they hear in music, to recognize patterns, identify common traits in songs and explain why they like a piece of music or not. Doing so shows them how music comprehension connects to academic principles, like math or language arts.

The music program also gives OCS’s young learners a sense of inclusion, further contributing to their emotional and cognitive development.

“Students with absolutely nothing in common can sit beside one another and make music – with their voices or with instruments – and please a crowd,” said Rauh. “The social [advantage] is hard to overlook when you consider how hard it is for some students to connect with others.”

Understanding Music Shapes A Bright Future

The vibrant elementary school music program leads to even more exciting opportunities when OCS students enter middle school – where the OCS music program originated.

O'Farrell High School music students
Students in The O’Farrell High School practice in small groups for an upcoming performance. Students learn to play modern music as well as classics in their music electives class.

Linda Logan, middle school music teacher and OCS veteran instructor of nearly 25 years, explained the ways in which the OCS music program has grown over the last decade.

For example, with the help of a generous grant from Time Warner/VHS, the middle school purchased instruments to form band and orchestra programs in addition to their staples: an instrumental program and a choir.

These programs have allowed for all middle school music students to perform a winter and spring concert, which they love.

“Every opportunity to entertain, they are willing to perform,” said Logan. “They want to share [their] love of music and encourage others to join them.”

As the OCS middle school music program grew over the years, it eventually expanded to the elementary school, and finally, to the high school, where the program consists of three subjects: band, choir and music appreciation.

Band and choir are performance-based classes, while music appreciation is theory-based and includes a study of music history and the numerous types of music across the globe.

“[The arts] help us express ourselves in ways that other subjects cannot,” said Monique Sanderlin, OCS high school music instructor. “Music in particular creates a bond with others that is so powerful that I believe it can even change lives.”

Witnessing the positive change that music makes in the lives of OCS high schoolers is especially rewarding when they are so close to graduation. The arts prepare students for college and the workforce by allowing them to participate in activities that make them more comfortable and confident in themselves.

“It takes just as much courage to sing in front of a crowd as it does to interview with a potential employer,” said Sanderlin. “The arts are powerful if we know how to use them and how to cultivate the talents I believe each student holds.”

And cultivating students’ artistic talents needs to begin in elementary school so that may children realize their importance early on.

“The arts are, without a doubt, a critical component in an individual’s education,” said Rauh.
“They teach patience, resilience, time management, aid with language acquisition and offer alternate ways of looking at math and science.”

“Being able to contribute to something much larger than yourself is important,” he continued. “Being able to recognize the impact of that performance is even better.”

And for that, we have the legacy of the arts and humanities to thank.