A new musical program has arrived in Pleasanton, adding the sounds of the guitarron and vihuela to the school district's musical stylings.
The Pleasanton Unified School District "Estrella del Pueblo" mariachi program began this fall after a trial run during the summer session. About 140 children are practicing traditional Mexican folk music as a way to learn how to read and play music while also learning about that country's musical heritage, said Susana Lopez-Krulevitch, the district's parent liaison and mariachi program director.
Pleasanton Unified receives state money to help disadvantaged children in its schools, and while the mariachi program is meant for all students, the program was designed with those students' needs in mind, Lopez-Krulevitch said.
In a community where some young children are composing waltzes by middle school, other children have never had the opportunity to hold an instrument, she said.
"The makeup of our school district is really changing. It's important to provide other culturally relevant programs," Lopez-Krulevitch said. "Music is critical. Every child should have the opportunity to try these programs and reap the benefits that come along with it."
While the largest demographic change at Pleasanton public schools has been in the Asian population (about a 10% increase since 2010), Pleasanton Unified has noted an increase of 116 Hispanic children in that time-frame. About 1,400 Hispanic children attend district schools, the third-largest demographic after white and Asian students.
In addition, children from low-income households will often opt out of music programs because they haven't developed the skills to play an instrument or perceive the cost as too high, Lopez-Krulevitch said. Some parents can't afford after-school music lessons for their children, and others can't afford to buy or rent instruments for their children to participate in district-run programs, she added.
The district does its best to provide an instrument to any child in the music program who cannot afford one, she said, but some parents feel the program is still too expensive for their means given auxiliary costs, including field trips.
"It's a roadblock for a lot of kids, especially socio-economically disadvantaged kids," she said.
Pleasanton receives a set amount of money from the state for student attendance through the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), which is part of the state funding program, called the Local Control Funding Formula. The district gets a supplement for every student who is socio-economically disadvantaged, in foster or kinship care or an English-language learner.
Lopez-Krulevitch said she met with Latino parents whose children are granted those supplements to discuss ways the district could better meet the needs of their children. The response, she said, was overwhelming and immediate: more extracurricular activities.
Pleasanton Unified decided to use a portion of the English-language learning supplement to fund the mariachi program, which Lopez-Krulevitch estimated will cost $60,000 this year. She said $11,000 of that was paid through donations specifically to the mariachi program, and the rest will be covered through LCAP funding.
That money will cover the cost of buying all the instruments, which will be provided to students for the duration of that year's program, and hiring instructors to attend the after-school practices at Village High School.
The majority of students in the program are Hispanic about 105 but about 35 students from other backgrounds have also joined, she said. The program became so popular officials had to start a wait list.
Students learn to play the violin, guitar, trumpet, guitarron and vihuela, she said. The latter two instruments are specifically for playing mariachi and are similar to a guitar but produce different sounds.
Lopez-Krulevitch cited a National Endowment of the Arts 2012 report, where Nina Kraus, a professor and neuroscientist at Northwestern University, outlined a study she performed that showed music made a difference in socio-economically disadvantaged students' grades and improved their ability to close the academic disparity gap.
"Music instruction not only improves children's communication skills, attention and memory, but it may even close the academic gap between rich and poor students," Lopez-Krulevitch said.
The mariachi program provides more than music theory and performance lessons for students.
Volunteers are also on-hand to provide homework help to students' siblings who aren't learning to play mariachi, and they also provide parent enrichment services, such as explanations for their children's state standardized test scores. Plans are in the works to provide English classes for parents who only speak Spanish, Lopez-Krulevitch said.
At a practice last month at Village, 9-year-old Susan Escoto held a violin and bent her fingers to balance the instrument's bow. Children gathered at tables nearby, practicing holding their violins to their chins while head instructor Filipe Garcia walked around the class, tuning students' instruments and answering questions.
"When you learn (the notes), you can make up a song," Escoto said, smiling.
Students gather in different classrooms based on what instrument they were practicing. In the guitar room, Riley Silversmith, 7, said he enjoyed learning what instruments are supposed to sound like.
And he said it was fun to play "loud and louder."
Garcia, who also teaches at the Bay Area-based Mariachi Academy of Music, said by learning about mariachi music, students can discuss songs and styles with their parents and grandparents, who may have heard this music when they were young. He also teaches at music programs in San Jose, Gilroy, Hayward and Half Moon Bay.
"A lot of the under-served community would not have an opportunity to be invested in the arts if it wasn't for school district-sponsored programs," Garcia said. "It helps students connect with their culture. In a way, it helps them connect with their families a little bit more."