I’ve been walking these halls, tired of looking at those same old walls.

 – from “Living Strong,” a song written by students at Hill-Freedman World Academy

Through an innovative music curriculum, students at Hill-Freedman write and produce songs, including “Living Strong,” through their own record label. At the moment, the Mount Airy school is the only one in the Philadelphia School District that has a songwriting curriculum and the means of production. 

But that will soon change. The Grammy Music Education Coalition, a national nonprofit spinoff of the organization that gives out the Grammy Awards, is investing about $5 million in the District, which will allow music educators to rewrite the curriculum across all grade levels to include more contemporary music, such as rock and R&B, along with the traditional classical curriculum. The curriculum will also become more interactive, teaching students to be lyricists, composers, and music producers.

The Modern Band curriculum will be piloted at 15 to 20 high schools, while equipment upgrades and “concentrated roll-outs” will be provided to about 50 elementary and high schools, said Frank Machos, executive director of the District’s Office of the Arts & Academic Enrichment. In addition, the Grammy Coalition investment will affect all schools in terms of minor equipment upgrades and professional development, he said.

The coalition aims to get students more involved in music, and its grant will pay for curriculum-building services and equipment for the 2018-19 academic year. Philadelphia was one of three districts selected from about 20 applications for the coalition’s inaugural program.

Ezechial Thurman, the music teacher at Hill-Freedman who advises the school’s record label, said he believes that including popular music in education is a gateway to get students involved more with classical music, which teaches discipline and dedication.

“A lot of our students are reluctant to dive into music,” he said. “We’re working with inner-city urban youth and saying, ‘We know you’ve got earbuds on on your way home on the SEPTA bus. We know you’re listening to someone like Meek Mill.’ We want to show students we have enough talent in our own school to create responsible entertainment that will make them think.”

Suzanne Spencer has been a music teacher at Benjamin Rush High School for 10 years. Since arriving, she has transformed the school’s music program by including vocals, solo performances, and musical arrangement. She said that the Grammy Coalition investment will help her grow the program even further.

“I think it’s amazing,” she said. “Teaching students how to be in a cooperative group, improvise, just seeing kids be productive and seeing what they can do when they have access to things has just been really cool.” 

The coalition’s executive director, Lee Whitmore, has undergraduate and graduate degrees in music education from West Chester University. Philadelphia, he said, is where he feels at home. Whitmore said the city’s innovation was one of the reasons it was chosen for the first year of the program.

“We want to provide even more access and resources for students to make music in Philadelphia,” he said. “There were a number of other qualifications, which include strong support from the community and a visionary arts leader.” 

The Grammy Coalition collaboration will align with the District’s arts and creativity framework, a recent initiative to expand arts education at all grade levels. In the 2017-18 academic year, arts education received $2 million in District budget allocations, and in 2018-19, it will receive $2 million from the District, in addition to the Grammy Coalition investment. 

During the worst of the state budget cuts starting in 2011-12, music and art instruction – not mandated in Pennsylvania – were stripped altogether from many schools, causing a public outcry.

Machos said he hopes to expand the music program with the Grammy Coalition by including such course topics as the music business, as well as music that embraces the cultures in the city.

“We’re thinking a lot about the cultural relevance of what we’re offering,” he said. In addition to “being able to offer popular music and contemporary music that all kids are interested in,” he also wants to acknowledge and take advantage of the wide ethnic diversity of the District’s students. With “immigrant populations in certain parts of the city where specific ethnic groups are prominent, [we will be] trying to incorporate some of the music of those cultures.”

Spencer, of Benjamin Rush High, said that making coursework relevant can help students improve their mental health and feeling of self-worth.

“Relating to the kids is the most important thing, especially when you work in a city,” she said. “Their home lives might not be the best, and school is a safe space. When they’re doing something that they feel is important to them, everything else falls by the wayside and they can learn while having an amazing time.”

Machos said the District will be able to expand on “cutting-edge” work and that the collaboration with the Grammy Coalition will allow it to share its curriculum across the country.

“We’re excited about the national spotlight the collaboration is putting on Philadelphia,” he said. “In the last 10 years, we’ve really tried to be innovative while really honoring and preserving tradition. Participating in the coalition has given us the opportunity to take part in conversations across the country to innovate music education for kids everywhere.” 

Thurman is presenting his student record label’s second album at the International Baccalaureate World Conference in San Diego this summer. He said that being involved in the Grammy Coalition will allow the District more opportunities to participate in a global conversation about music education.

“We want to change the narrative that seems to exist in inner-city schools –that our kids lack opportunities,” he said. “We want to become examples and trendsetters across the globe.”

Alyssa Biederman