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Music Inspires Embattled DC Students


Inner-city schools in the United States are in crisis, plagued by high drop-out rates, crime-infested neighborhoods and underfunded programs.

Kid Pan Alley, a small, creative non-profit that conducts songwriting workshops for students nationwide, recently visited a school in Washington's tough Anacostia neighborhood.

Songwriter and recording artist Paul Reisler founded the organization in 1999, working with more than 35,000 students and producing over 2,200 songs since then.

An influential musician who has performed widely since the 1970s, Reisler founded and led the influential folk band Trapezoid and continues to perform with his new group Paul Reisler & A Thousand Questions.

He said music's transformative power can teach children skills they would not otherwise receive in an American educational system that relies increasingly on standardized tests to measure success.

"We're living in a creative economy now," Reisler said. "We're living in an economy that needs people who can imagine things and make things in their minds. Creativity is the most powerful thing that ever was.... What we're really doing is trying to inspire [kids] to be creative."

Inner-city realities

At Orr Elementary School in Washington's Anacostia neighborhood, 95 percent of the students come from low-income families, well above the 70 percent citywide average.

"We have kids that are homeless, we have kids that are going through various challenges, living in shelters and so forth," said Orr Dean of Students Marlon Ray. "But these kids still want to strive for greatness."

"Our 4th and 5th grade students are critical for their families' stability, making sure food is ready when they come home [and other tasks]," explained Orr Director of Programs Jhonna Turner.

Ray said the school's greatest challenge is not only securing financial resources, but human capital as well.

Added to these stark realities, a drive-by shooting took place in April directly in front of Orr while students were outside on the playground. No one was injured, but the event affected everyone in the school community.

"Sometimes we [say] our students are going through war, even just walking off the school grounds... [When] some of them go home, they see things, hear things, that are a little bit scary. But in the midst of all that, they still have to learn," Turner said.

Nearly 70 violent crimes and 200 property crimes have occurred within a kilometer of the school over the past year alone, according to Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department statistics.

"What we teach our kids is always by the time the lights come on, it's time to come in the house," said Lita Nimmons, whose granddaughter, La'Shayla, is an Orr first grader.

Meeting the challenge

Parents Juawawne Eaton and DeWayne Curry said Orr staff face these challenges creatively and that Reisler's work meshes perfectly.

"Orr tries to teach the positive, not the negative, so [Reisler] fell right in. It was a good experience for the kids," Eaton said.

"We want to go beyond the testing and provide activities that make kids want to come to school," Turner added.

Back at the workshop, Reisler and collaborator Heather May encourage the students to move beyond ideas coming from television. Eventually, 1st grader Paul plants a seed that develops into the song "I Heard it On the Radio."

"Whatever it takes"

Kid Pan Alley has produced three commercial CDs, worked with big-name recording artists and received numerous awards and a Grammy nomination.

"We've had people like Amy Grant and Delbert McClinton, 'Kix' Brooks of Brooks and Dunn, Sissy Spacek, the very well-known American actress. We've been really blessed to have people who recognize the quality of the songs the kids are writing, and want to sing them," Reisler said.

Ray said the week-long workshop and concert created positive memories that will last for years.

"Our slogan here at Orr is 'whatever it takes.' And that's what our staff does here - whatever it takes to make it happen," he said emphatically.
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    Mark Snowiss

    Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus

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