Serving at-risk students with music

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday July 19th. You are listening to WORLD Radio and we are delighted!

Hello. I am Mary Reichard.

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

We know that music lessons benefit students creatively and academically. Several studies have shown this.

Some students who learn to play an instrument or participate in a choir may even experience less stress than those who don’t.

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

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

LAUREN DUNN, REPORTER: Thirteen students aged 11 to 18 prepare for the choir. Like the young people in each class, these students all have different stories. Most live in residential group homes. At least one lives with a host family.

They attend different schools – some, due to behavioral needs, attend an online school – but all make music together at Juniper Arts Academy.

CLASS: Well done if you know who your boyfriend is right now. It’s a good job. Alright, so we’ll stick to our buddy groups. Yeah. And we’re gonna hang out, and we’re gonna have a great time with them.

Lisa Paine is the Executive Director of Juniper. She started the nonprofit last year with the goal of providing fine arts education to young people in local foster care and juvenile justice systems.

PAINE: If you look at juniper, it’s actually one of the only trees that can grow in areas where you wouldn’t expect there to be greenery or anything like that. As if you could walk in a desert and see a big juniper blossoming… People don’t expect much from children in terms of the kind of young people they are, okay, we hear, oh, they might just be bad kids. They are not. They are amazing kids and they are thriving.

The academy started in September 2021 with a general music class. Their first pupils 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 have a young guy on the spectrum that you know, he can be difficult to work with in certain 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 we can get that encourages kids to be pro social in public places, that’s what we’re looking for.

During its second tenure, the group expanded Juniper’s offerings to include a choir class and small group ukulele lessons.

THE AUDIO: [Ukulele tuning]

On choir mornings, volunteers called student advocates stay with their buddies to demonstrate 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 walks in, and the first thing he asks is, where’s my buddy? Or where is my teacher?… It just shows that they know someone is going to be there for them.

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

PRICE: You have to work together in order to achieve a choral sound, and it’s not necessarily based on the individual.

The price starts with a vocal warm-up, going through several familiar warm-ups every few weeks. Then students work on new material from the songs they are learning, before playing a group game. Price moves quickly around the room as she teaches, starting with the piano then moving closer to the students before returning to the piano.

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

AWARD: Juniper really, honestly saved my career last year, because I was looking to leave the profession… It made me realize like, oh, no, I really like that. I’m really good at it. And I can’t walk away from these students.

Although things don’t always go smoothly. Visiting times, transportation issues, and group home staffing needs can all affect who shows up to class. Often the academy staff and volunteers don’t know how many students will be coming until they arrive.

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

LOUCKS: I use a lot of humor. So it’s a lot of jokes, kind of back and forth, as well as kind of seeing if they’ll step out of their comfort zone if I’m okay breaking the ice, like I’m the awkward first, and then they were fine. It’s like, oh, that was kinda funny. I want to be part of it.

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

LOUCKS: So one of my buddies now, they’re very involved now, they’re a role model for you know, the other students who are newer to the class. But the first quarter, when they started coming here, it was those who were like sitting at the back of the room, who didn’t want to participate. And, yeah, just seeing the perseverance, what that can bring to these students, I think is very exciting.

A local music store offers ukuleles at cost. Paine’s alma mater and a local church allow the group free use of classroom space.

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 like students around the world.

PAINE: They’re some of the best kids I’ve ever met who’ve been through some of the worst things I’ve ever heard of. And they’re just – they’re very nice. That’s the general word I would use for it. They are adorable children 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, crocheting or pottery. All the ways to encourage their students to be creative and try something new. And keep coming back.

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

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


WORLD Radio transcriptions are created on very short notice. 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 recording of WORLD Radio programming is the audio recording.

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