On a drizzly December afternoon, more than 25 children gathered in the cafeteria/gymnasium at Los Robles Magnet Academy in East Palo Alto. With rapt attention they shook their arms, clapped their hands and stretched their necks and shoulders to the ever-accelerating tempo of the Ghanaian call-and-response song "Che Che Kule." Moving to the African rhythms was a warm up for their weekly international folk dance class, a new, free, after-school program offered by Music in the Schools Foundation.
"Would everyone find a partner? We're going to make a giant circle," instructor Michel Hardbarger, who leads the class with a gentle, calming presence, said to her group of elementary school children. To the sounds of Israeli music, the dancers took turns spinning with their partners, mimicking a dreidel, in honor of Hanukkah.
When the classes first started, Hardbarger recalled with a laugh, the kids were reluctant to partner up and hold hands. "I tell them, 'You don't have to bring them home with you. It's just a dance!'"
As the hour-long class went on, the choreography increased in complexity, with the children dutifully mouthing the directions along with Hardbarger as they worked on step sequences, pivots and more.
"They're not just learning dance but also about other cultures and each other," Program Director Kyle Sofman said of the successful pilot program, which keeps gaining members through word of mouth.
Though international folk dance is a new offering this year, along with a percussion class for eighth-graders who might otherwise have been left out of their school's music curriculum, Music in the Schools has been providing free general and specialized music classes to students in the Ravenswood City School District for more than 20 years. It currently serves more than 500 children in preschool through eighth grade at four sites in East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park.
Some of their classes are offered during school, "filling in the gaps," as Sofman put it, between the chronically underfunded district's own music courses. Others are offered as free after-school enrichment, something much needed in a district where some parents work long hours and students often stay on campus until 6 p.m. The overall goal is to ensure that all Ravenswood students receive music instruction that meets or exceeds California State Visual and Performing arts (VAPA) standards. Students also get opportunities to perform for the community, helping to build their self-esteem while they reap the artistic, social and cognitive benefits of arts education.
Most Music in the Schools instructors have several teaching gigs to make ends meet (local luminaries on the team include Thomas Shoebotham, director of the Palo Alto Philharmonic). The nonprofit's teachers also sometimes take on multiple types of classes within the program. Hardbarger, for example, at the request of students, has led a ukulele club for fourth- and fifth-graders at Willow Oaks.
Keeping things going, though, is an ongoing struggle, even though the foundation doesn't operate from a central office, which helps keep costs down.
A $5,000 grant received from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund in 2018 came at an especially critical time, as the program recently lost several important sources of funding, including the Peery Foundation, the Palo Alto Community Fund grants and the Ravenswood City School District itself because of continued financial instability in the district (in 2015-16, the district provided $40,000).
"We've lost a lot of funding, and we still have to pay teachers and maintain instruments. Our money comes from the kindness of donors, and we are grateful for every penny we get," Sofman said.
At the same time as the folk dance class at Las Robles, in a music room across the quad, the after-school beginning strings ensemble was working on a Suzuki piece. Students on cellos, violas and violins rehearsed under the enthusiastic, high-energy guidance of experienced teacher Shelly Monarez. As they rehearsed, she accompanied them on piano, calling out tips — "Feet flat on the floor! Your violin goes on your shoulder!" — and shouting encouragement.
The program not only gives students high-quality lessons in music but, like the dance class, offers lessons in arts diversity.
"The strings teacher incorporates music from a variety of cultures too. It's important for these kids to know their cultures matter — it's not just (by) a bunch of dead white guys," Sofman said.
Toward the end of the lesson, Monarez asked the group, which has only been meeting since October, to try playing along to a recording.
"That was so fun!" one young violinist exclaimed afterward.
Monarez beamed: "Wasn't it, though?"
Sofman and the rest of the Music in the Schools team are making hopeful plans for the future. Sofman said she would love to start a choir, which, as she pointed out, is quite cost efficient since not much equipment is needed. She'd also like to see the popular folk dance program expanded to other sites and/or other times so that more children could have access to it.
Back in the dance class, the kids wrapped things up with an Israeli song about jungle animals, which involved mimicking the slithering motion of a snake. Though the class was originally intended for second-to-fifth graders, a few first-graders have since joined and seem to be keeping up just fine.
"Just do the best you can," Hardbarger told the newest members of the group. She paused and smiled. "And have a good time!"
More information on the Holiday Fund, including how to donate, can be found at PaloAltoOnline.com/holiday_fund.