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The Economy Project: The School of Rock at DISD

by Jerome Weeks 30 Aug 2010 7:12 AM

DISD has been climbing out of the arts-education hole it dug back in the ’80s and ’90s. But it’s been able to do it with outside, non-profit money — from groups like the Wallace Foundation. We look at how Little Kids Rock is bringing the power of rock — for free — to young headbangers and songwriters in DISD.


Rich Eckhardt (Toby Keith’s lead guitarist) plays with Rodney Dittmar’s Seagoville High School music students (from the Little Kids Rock Channel)

The Dallas Independent School District has committed to providing one arts teacher and one music teacher for each of its campuses. But DISD has been able to do that mostly through outside money from a non-profit foundation (used to leverage corporate donations). As part of KERA’s Economy Project, Jerome Weeks reports on another non-profit group that’s providing a free music program at 45 DISD schools. It’s a start, anyway. That’s 45 among more than 200.

KERA radio report:

Expanded online report:

[sounds of classroom talking, strumming under]

Rodney Dittmar teaches music at Seagoville middle school and high school. This is his 7th-grade class, 20 boys, 5 girls. It’s only the second time most have even tried to play guitar.

Dittmar: “All right, everybody! Play me an A chord. Ready, and [sounds of strumming]. Some of you have got your fingers on the wrong place!”

OK, to be fair, you should also hear one of Dittmar’s high school students.

[music plays]

Yes, Dittmar teaches his students “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

[music fades]

Three years ago, Dittmar was one of the first 24 Dallas public schoolteachers to volunteer for the national program, Little Kids Rock. It gives 30 guitars, free, to music teachers like Dittmar who will follow the Little Kids Rock teaching methodology, 15 guitars to general education teachers.

Dittmar says he practically camped out to be first in line.
Rodney Dittmar tuning students’ guitars in his class at Seagoville Middle School. Yes, that’s a KISS poster.

Dittmar: “Because I needed the guitars. At the time I only had four or five working school guitars. If a student wanted to be in my class, they had to purchase their own. And I hate that because I want to have everybody a chance to do this.”

David Wish felt the same frustration when he taught first grade in San Francisco in 1996. Music education in public schools had nearly been wiped out from back-to-basics campaigns, tax cuts and budget cuts. So Wish started his own after-school classes on guitar. He cut some CDs of music by his elementary-school students. And radio stations picked them up.

Wish: “People like Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt and John Lee Hooker heard that music and they each got behind the program. And by 2001, I made the decision that this was much bigger than a program for a single school, but rather that this was a way to address a social inequity.  Children are not getting music education.”

This year, Little Kids Rock will reach 54,000 students in 24 cities. It is one of the largest distributors of free instruments in the country. And thanks, in part, to Big Thought and the money it’s brought to the project, Dallas is Little Kids Rock’s largest chapter (we occasionally tie with Tampa). Since 2007, Little Kids Rock has donated approximately a quarter-of-a-million dollars’ worth of musical instruments to DISD.

Elaine Thomas is DISD’s director of fine arts. She says that a quarter of a million dollars is close to DISD’s annual budget for repairing or replacing musical instruments and audio equipment.

Thomas: “I think it’s very significant. We would be very hard pressed to put on these campuses the kind of equipment we have received from Little Kids Rock – from our budget.”

Thomas and Wish insist that school systems can’t use Little Kids Rock to replace regular music classes — and cut their own arts education budget. In fact, Little Kids Rock has often acted like a seed or beachhead – helping to grow a school’s programs.

Thomas: “We have some campuses that would like to start a mariachi program. But where are they going to find the money? So this is a starting point for not only guitar but a mariachi program.”

The key to Little Kids Rock’s effectiveness is not simply that it gives teachers free instruments. Its approach to music is garage-band simple: popular instruments, popular music, easy access.

The program relies primarily on guitars and drum kits — instruments that traditionally are not taught in public school music classes; these concentrate on marching band, orchestra and choral music.

Wish: “I like to call it ‘modern band’ — because most modern music has the same instrumentation: drums, guitar, keyboard and bass and vocal. If you think of the most commercially successful music of the last 50 or 60 years — whether it’s reggae or heavy metal or disco or country-western — it’s almost entirely made on those instruments.”

Little Kids Rock also doesn’t start by teaching abstract basics like musical notation or harmony.  It’s just: Here’s a guitar, here are a couple of chords, what’s that song you like? Let’s kick out the jams.

Hey, we can even write our own jams. Little Kids Rock encourages song composition, too — from even the youngest students.

Learning music has been shown to improve math and social skills. It can stimulate creativity. Playing an instrument can give a child a feeling of accomplishment; it can provide a quick payoff for studying — unlike, say, trying to memorize the periodic table — thus inculcating in a bored, young, video-playing mind the rewards and value of practice and homework.

But it also can just make school fun.

Dennis Raveneau (right) teaches Little Kids Rock to fourth, fifth and sixth graders at Dealey Montessori. He uses it as a “carrot,” he says, to encourage his students to finish up their regular work  — so they’ll have time to  break out the guitars.

Raveneau: “One of the things we know about education is that play is a wonderful form of learning. It can be really, really easy.”

Stephen Slaughter is in Dittmar’s seventh-grade guitar class at Seagoville.

Slaughter: “Most people say they wanna be in guitar class cuz they wanna be a major rockstar after college. I’ve never actually seen myself as a huge guitar player. But I love to play, and I’m never going to drop it.”

[class noises come up]

Actually, Little Kids Rock is not without its costs. Obviously, it’s reliant on donations of money and instruments. But it’s also extremely dependent on teachers willing to give up their free time. For his part, Dittmar has even lost money. He’s given up more than $2000 a year, the stipend he used to earn for directing after-school choral classes and competitions.

Dittmar [over the sound of his class]: “Not even a problem — because what I’ve gotten from this has been so worth it.”

  • Jerome Weeks

    Elaine Thomas, DISD director of fine arts, sends this correction:

    Actually, the Wallace never funded the placement of teachers. That was a commitment made by DISD and continues today. The Wallace paid for placing a set of standard equipment in both the art and music rooms, the writing of our curriculum guides for all levels and disciplines, and provided teacher training over three years for both disciplines.

    Thanks again for the opportunity to let people know one of the many great things going on in DISD fine arts programs.

  • Nicole

    I got to play there that night (: Mr. Dittmar is an amazing teacher ive been in his class since 7th grade and its been four years since. he seems to get better and better at it every year. hes always trying his best and i cant ask for a better teacher (: