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Serving at-risk students with music


WORLD Radio - Serving at-risk students with music

Young people in the foster care system get special access to extracurricular activities

Photo by Lauren Dunn

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, July 19th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we’re so glad you are!

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Next up: Serving students at risk of academic failure.

We know that music lessons benefit students in creative and academic ways. Several studies have shown that.

Some students who learn to play an instrument or participate in choir may even experience less stress than those who do not.

But not everyone has access to extracurricular activities like music classes. That’s why a nonprofit organization in Wichita, Kansas, focuses on young people in the foster care system. WORLD’s Lauren Dunn has our story.

PRICE: Show me in your hands, ready and go: crescendo decrescendo…[music exercise]

LAUREN DUNN, REPORTER: Thirteen students ages 11-18 are warming up for choir. Like young people in every class, these students all have different stories. Most live in residential group homes. At least one lives with a foster family.

They go to different schools—some, due to behavioral needs, attend online school —but all are making music together at Juniper Arts Academy.

CLASS: Big thumbs up if you know who your buddy is right now. That's a good job. Okay, so we are going to stick with our buddy groups. Yeah. And we're gonna hang out, and we're gonna have a really fun time with them.

Lisa Paine is Juniper’s executive director. She started the nonprofit last year with the goal of providing fine arts education for youth in the local foster care and juvenile justice systems.

PAINE: If you look up the juniper tree, it actually is one of the only trees that can grow in areas where you wouldn't expect there to be greenery or anything like that. Like you could be walking in a desert and see a large flourishing juniper tree…People don't expect much from the kids in regards to what kind of youth they are, right, we hear like, oh, they might just be bad kids. They're not. They're incredible kids, and they are thriving.

The academy started in September 2021 with one general music class. Their first students were 14 boys from the Youth Horizons Kinloch Price Boys Ranch in Valley Center, Kan. James Bazil is the assistant director of residential programs at the ranch.

BAZIL: I've got a young man on the spectrum that you know, he can be difficult to to work with in some settings, but when you send him to Juniper Arts, he's just ready to work, he's ready to learn. He's just engaged. He loves it…Anything that we can get that encourages kids to have pro social behavior in public settings, that's what we're all about.

In its second term, the group expanded Juniper’s offerings to include a choir class and smaller group ukulele classes.

AUDIO: [Ukulele tuning]

On choir mornings, volunteers called student advocates stay with their buddies to model how to participate. Paine says this structure also provides consistency: students stay with the same student advocate for the entire term.

PAINE: I love it when our student comes in, and the first thing they ask is, where's my buddy? Or where's my teacher?...It just shows they know that someone's going to be there for them.

Eileen Price is a choral director at a local middle school. She volunteered during Juniper’s first term, then began teaching the choir class.

PRICE: You have to work together in order to get a choral sound, and it's not necessarily individual based.

Price starts with a vocal warm-up, cycling through several familiar warm-ups every few weeks. Next the students work on new material from songs they’re learning, before playing a group game. Price moves quickly around the room as she teaches, starting at the piano and then moving closer to the students before going back to the piano.

Price says the students aren’t the only ones benefiting from these choir classes.

PRICE: Juniper really, honestly saved my career this past year, because I was looking to leave the profession…It made me realize like, oh, no, I actually love this. I'm actually very good at this. And I can't walk away from these students.

Though things don’t always go smoothly. Visitation schedules, transportation issues, and group home staffing needs can all affect who shows up to class. Often academy staff and volunteers aren’t sure how many students will come until they arrive.

Sometimes students are having a bad day before they even walk in the door, and they don’t always want to participate. This is where student advocates come in. Chris Loucks started volunteering last year.

LOUCKS: I use a lot of humor. So it's a lot of joking, kind of back and forth, as well as kind of seeing if they'll step out of their comfort zone by me being okay breaking the ice, like me being the goofy one first, and then them being okay. It's like, oh, it actually was kind of funny. I want to be part of that.

Student advocates keep showing up even when their assigned buddies are less than enthusiastic. Loucks says it pays off.

LOUCKS: One of my buddies now, they are now very involved, they’re a role model for you know, the other students that are newer to the class. But the first term when they started getting here, they're the ones like sitting in the back of the room, didn't want to participate. And, yeah, so just seeing the persistence, what it can bring to those students I think is very exciting.

A local music store provides ukuleles at cost. Paine's alma mater and a local church both allow the group to use classroom space for free.

As more members of the community volunteer or attend events where students perform, Paine hopes they will see that Juniper students are in many ways just like students everywhere.

PAINE: They’re some of the best kids I've ever met who have been through some of the worst things that I've ever heard of. And they're just – they're very sweet. That's the general word I would use for it. They're sweet kids who want to learn and love.

The academy added keyboard and piano lessons this summer. Paine says they plan to eventually add visual arts such as painting, crochet, or pottery. All ways to encourage their students to be creative and try something new. And to keep coming back.

AUDIO: Thank you for coming! I’ll see you next week.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Lauren Dunn in Wichita, Kansas.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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