MAC Corner: 100% Retention Rate? Go Team!

Mike Lawson • Resources • May 19, 2015

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Shutterstock Music Student playing PianoStudents continue to participate in our music programs because they cannot imagine school without the meaningful engagement that our courses provide. For one reason or another however, we continue to lose some students along the way.

One Iowa school district came to the realization that they could do something about it. Below is their story and some initial steps they are taking to work toward the vision of retaining 100 percent of their students.

Go Team!

We’ve all heard it a MILLION times – this familiar cheer for an intensive sporting event where the outcome has a significant impact one way or the other. Using this same approach – i.e. the concept of an intensive goal creating a significant impact as a result – innovative school district music departments across the country, like the Bettendorf Community Public Schools, are taking the “Go Team!” approach to a whole new level!

During a recent district-wide professional development in-service day, the Bettendorf Community Public Schools Music Education “Team” was challenged to explore how they might better communicate the great work of their program and the high achievements of their students to their various constituents – e.g. students not yet participating in the music program, school faculty and staff, district leadership, parents, and the greater Bettendorf community. Even though the educators were doing a tremendous job with their own programs, there was a sense of being untethered – as if there were no specific direction and as if they were on their own to “do it all!” Their perception was that even though they were each working diligently, they were not getting the traction they had hoped for – and, in fact, deserved – to capture the eye of their various communities.

It was my privilege to have been asked to facilitate the department’s PD, which involved visiting with the teachers individually in a variety of settings – in rehearsals, in offices, over lunch at a local bistro, at a student performance, as well as at the concluding team meeting itself in the high school band room. Along the way, we kept bumping into that ever-present question, “Why music education?” and how the answer would come to have such consequence for them moving forward.

This was a comprehensive, inspiring, and invigorating process that elicited inclusive conversations that yielded a surprising discovery: the realization that as varied as everyone’s concerns were when articulated individually or in small groups, when it came right down to it, each teacher really wanted the same thing – for all students to have a life-long relationship with active music-making. Wow! This philosophy is not about trying to create more symphony musicians. Rather, it’s that if students continue to be active music-makers into adulthood — whether at church, or in any variety of community groups — their lives would be substantially enriched, and thus considerably more productive, uplifting, energizing, and joyful. Thus, what they are really doing is preparing students to go out into the world equipped with the means to enjoy a significant and meaningful life.

So what happens now?  How can they, as educators, really control this? With just a few ideas to prime the pump, the “team” went into action scoring goal after goal! The ideas just kept coming and coming, but most important, they agreed to begin meeting together on a monthly basis so that they could continue to move forward as a team. The first order of business was to find a way to articulate their game plan. 

Since the team had now formulated their unified purpose to prepare all students for lifelong music-making experiences, it was then agreed upon that over the December break, each teacher would reflect upon this “big audacious goal” then come back to the January meeting with ideas to share so that they could begin to formalize a district-wide mission for their department.

Thankfully, we had sufficient time to strategize some specific actions to be taken to begin moving forward. Below are some of those action items that will not only create increased district/community awareness (the original goal of the PD), but also promote the vision for elementary students to picture themselves as high school music students and for the parents of these students to envision their children as high school music students right from the very beginning.

 1. A district-wide music department mission statement will be formalized and promoted.

 2. Small ensemble performances will be scheduled at the beginning of every school board meeting with time provided afterward for the representative school board member to speak to the students about their accomplishments in music.

 3.  Each music teacher will include a recruiting section on their school website.

 4. An educational plan/flow chart will be developed that will prescribe how students can continue taking music classes through all four high school years. This will be provided appropriately to the parents of music students.

 5. The elementary band students will be featured with the high school band as their VIP guests at one of the halftime shows annually. The announcer will quickly call out each elementary student by name and each will then run onto the field into position in front of a high school student who plays a like instrument. The elementary school director who will also choose the material to be performed will conduct the groups. This could be as simple as a phrase made up of two or three different notes played over a series of chord changes performed by the high school band. Dance moves will be included! The purpose is to bring the elementary school students into the high school “arena” and for their parents to begin envisioning their elementary school student as a high school band student. The high school booster parents will provide complimentary refreshments and VIP seating for the parents of the elementary students.

 6. The high school instrumental directors will choose an appropriate selection and score a recorder part to feature the elementary school students on that selection in the Spring Concert. This event is also geared toward having the students view themselves as high school instrumental students and for the parents to see their children as high school instrumental students performing right on the high school stage.

 7. The elementary and middle school teachers will invite the high school teachers to conduct a piece on one of their school concerts.

8. The Bettendorf High School principal, Mr. Jimmy Casas — a motivated leader who is passionate about kids and serving others –– will work with the middle school principals to facilitate scheduling so that recurring visits become part of the regular teaching assignment.

 9. The high school parent booster organization will host the middle school parent organization for a chili/spaghetti supper to visit with them about the many benefits of participating in the high school program. Brief entertainment will be provided by the high school students. Several high school students will also be invited to speak to the middle school parents about the impact the high school program has had on them personally.

10. The high school students will write congratulatory notes to the middle school and elementary students as appropriate to commend them on an extraordinary performance, being chosen for something special, et cetera. This activity is to develop a “Big Brother/Big Sister” relationship.

11. The high school students will attend the concerts given by the programs that they participated in before coming to the high school. After the concert, they will provide positive feedback to the students of that program via written notes (see #10) or emails to the director to be read aloud to the students during class.

12. The principal of one of the middle/elementary schools will be invited to provide remarks at one of the concerts being held at the high school and vice versa. Elementary/middle school parents will gain a sense of confidence in the high school program when they see the high school principal speaking so favorably about it at this event. Conversely, the high school parents will be so impressed that the elementary/middle school principal still cares enough about their children to the degree that he would make the time to speak at the high school concert. In the big picture, these types of “principal exchange” activities reinforce the idea that the accepted, standard procedure is for students to continue in music throughout their school years.

Additional ideas that could be implemented might also include the following:

13. The high school students will come up with an idea for a comprehensive video about their program to be posted on the department’s website. The goal is to “tell the story” about their program.

14. The beginning band teachers will begin using “First Performance for Band/Orchestra” as a demonstration concert six or seven weeks into the first year of study for the beginning students. This mini-concert will close with a high-spirited performance from the high school ensemble. The school principal will be invited to read the provided narrations. More information on how to order a copy is available at

15. Appropriately selected high school students will provide lessons to beginner/intermediate, elementary/middle school students at a summer music camp to be held at the high school during the first week (or two) after the close of school. This will pair younger students with older students in a supervised setting, which could motivate the younger musicians to practice over the summer. It also provides another opportunity for the high school students to serve as role models. In addition, this experience could enlighten the high school students to the possibility of becoming a music educator.

So much has already been accomplished! The team capitalized on the model from the business world of identifying what it was that they, as one, unified organization, agreed was their true mission. We even spoke about adding a “tag line” or creating a slogan to take their essence a step further. Based upon their self-identified goal, some possible tag lines could include, “Creating a more fulfilling future for our students” or “Creating harmony in our community.”

When the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor’s Authority created the slogan, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” they created a masterpiece! Everyone knows it and in fact, all one has to say is, “What happens in Vegas. . .” and everyone knows what comes next. So, how can an example like this be used as a slogan for our music departments? One might consider, “What happens in music lasts for a lifetime.”

There is still a long way to go, but this exceptional music team in Bettendorf, IA is showing incredible dedication and fortitude in moving forward with their vision of retaining 100 percent of their students. It will take a great deal of endurance, determination, and even courage over the long term, but the outcome of this game plan will surely have a considerable impact on everyone. GO TEAM!

Marcia Neel is president of Music Education Consultants, Inc., and serves as educational advisor to the Music Achievement Council. In this capacity, she provides sessions at state conferences, district in-service days, as well as dealer workshops to share practical success strategies to help educators with the many and varied elements of the successful music education program. Contact [email protected] to inquire about sessions in your area. 

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