Fairfield University to help boost music education in Bridgeport Public Schools


Recognizing the link between strong arts education and overall academic excellence, Fairfield University and the Bridgeport Public School District are teaming up to arm city music teachers with new skills and support and bolster music classes for the public school system's 22,700 students.

The large-scale, year-round initiative won one of only 20 grants awarded during the 2003-2004 school year through the U.S. Department of Education's professional development for arts education program. While financial commitment has yet to be announced, if the Bridgeport program is approved for its full three years, it will receive about $650,000 in federal funding. Hartford is the only other Connecticut community to receive funding through this grant program.

"We're very excited. We're still in shock," said Nancy Goncalves, Ph.D., Bridgeport's director of fine and performing arts. "This is a wonderful opportunity for teachers and for program development."

The plan strives to train, support and maintain quality teachers in Bridgeport, where, as in other cities, funding is at a premium and teachers are scarce. Offering the existing 40 music teachers support and boosting their classroom capabilities should, in turn, strengthen student opportunities, skills and even test scores, said Laura Nash, Ph.D., director of Fairfield University's Classical Music Department.

"Researchers have found that when kids have good music and art education, reading and math test scores improve. It used to be just anecdotal, but now there is a lot of hard evidence to that effect," said Nash, who is spearheading the initiative from the University side. "Our job is to support the teachers and then let the teachers do their jobs."

The far-reaching plan features six components: in-house staff development, mentoring, conferences, colloquia, membership in professional organizations, and the Institute for Music Educators, an intensive summer program. The grant will pay for Bridgeport public school teachers to attend the Institute, which will likely be open to Bridgeport parochial school music teachers and other Fairfield County teachers for a nominal fee. In addition, the grant funds technological upgrades, including new computers, printers and software geared to music education.

The new program will develop, test and refine a research-based curriculum that meets the National Standards for Music Education and bolster strategies to increase student achievement. One way the teachers hope to captivate students is using music relevant to urban students who hail from diverse countries and cultures, many of which place strong emphasis on music.

At a holiday concert in Bridgeport City Hall, Nash said she was encouraged to see groups from across the city perform to cheers from their peers. Teacher dedication and the students' interest and willingness to participate are good signs for future success in Bridgeport.

"All the makings for having a strong program are there," Nash said.

The program aims to develop professionalism and leadership skills, in part, through intensive training and ongoing support, as well as instruction in cutting-edge music software programs. All teachers will become members of the National Association for Music Educators and financial aid will be available for music education conferences. In addition, the grant will fund colloquia at the University, concert attendance, conference follow-ups and other opportunities to create a much-needed forum for friendships and strategy sharing.

While it's often shunted aside when a municipal budget gets tight, music education is a proven tool to boost student achievement, especially in urban areas such as Bridgeport. Recent research, including the groundbreaking Champions for Change study of 2001, shows students who participate in meaningful music classes do better in music and there is a positive correlation to success in school and the community.

Studies have linked strong music education to improved brain function and reading and math/spatial reasoning. Students with solid music classes are more likely to be motivated and self disciplined and less likely to drop out of school, said Scott Shuler, Ph.D., arts consultant for the Connecticut Department of Education. Young people who are involved in high quality arts programs both in and out of school are also more likely to be involved in student government, science and math fairs and community service.

And music is important in and of itself, Shuler said.

"Music is one of our primary means of expression," he said. "Like written language and mathematics, it's a system for organizing and communicating about the world. No one of those systems is adequate by itself. Together, they really empower students."

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on February 20, 2004

Vol. 36, No. 190