Lincoln Street School doesn’t have a gymnasium or a performance area. Its cafeteria is the size of a classroom. But what it does have is a unique music program that, even during a pandemic, continued its tune to help the students stay connected and engaged.
Known as the OpporTUNEity program at Anna Maria College, it is a community-based initiative that pairs undergraduate students with fourth-, fifth and sixth-graders from Lincoln Street, as well as seventh-graders from Burncoat Middle School. Usually taking place at the college campus, the program shifted to online learning shortly after public schools statewide were closed due to COVID-19.
“In a time of uncertainty, we can find a sense of calmness in music,” said Dr. Melissa Martiros, director of music at Anna Maria College and founder of OpporTUNEity. “It has been truly inspiring to watch the students come together and create this virtual classroom for the children during a time when they themselves are feeling the uncertainty of the world around them.”
Recently concluding its second year at Anna Maria, OpporTUNEity had 33 students enrolled from Lincoln Street School — with a large percentage from the fourth grade alone, as well as a waiting list for next year’s program. The students cycle through four different classes: piano; choir; music technology and Creative Expressions, where children are invited to bring their thoughts and feelings into class using a variety of methods such as coloring, drawing and writing, which eventually leads them to creating their own songs. Music education and music therapy majors from Anna Maria serve as instructors.
“OpporTUNEity is the highlight of my week,” said Juliet Maglitta, a music education major who teaches the music technology class. “The program is really unique. I have yet to see a program that is doing what OpporTUNEity is doing. As for the students themselves, it really is an honor to get to work with them every week. I think the most rewarding thing is having the students have an aha moment.”
The program is essential at Lincoln Street because the school had a “really scarce music program – and they still do,” Martiros said. “It’s within the arts district, but they lack the resources. When they funnel into the Burncoat Middle, there’s an even bigger disadvantage because it’s an arts magnet school.”
Said Lincoln Street Principal Michelle Gabrielian, “Our kids have music once a week for 40 minutes, but nothing like this.”
OpporTUNEity aims to do just what its name says — provide these students with a chance to experience music in a way they wouldn’t otherwise. The program not only teaches the students about music, but also builds their confidence and gives them a feeling of accomplishment, Gabrielian said.
“You can definitely see everyone’s improvement,” she said. “If they’re building new skills through music, they’re going to try it in their academics. They learn practice causes improvement, and that definitely carries into academics.”
Normally, students are bused to the Anna Maria campus in Paxton on Wednesdays for the program. “That’s a really important part,” Martiros said, “where they can see beyond school. It gives them a college experience.”
In return, this provides a “mutual exchange” of benefits for the college students who work with OpporTUNEity, said Martiros. “Most of them talk about how it’s the most meaningful aspect of their college experience,” she said.
Emily Kropo, a music therapy major and one of the piano teachers for the program, said she loves bonding with the students. “They’re finding different elements not only of music, but also of life, and finding creativity within themselves and with music,” she said.
Katelyn Sable, also a major in music therapy, said, “The most rewarding part of OpporTUNEity is seeing how the kids grow over time. When we first met them, they were super shy and they didn’t want to really be involved in music at all. But their personalities have really come out.”
This year, OpporTUNEity partnered with Burncoat Middle School to encourage last year’s sixth-graders to stay with the program once they switched schools. There were seven students from Burncoat who continued with OpporTUNEity. On Tuesdays and Thursdays when school was in session, Anna Maria students would travel to Burncoat for after-school supervised music practice, general mentorship and homework help.
The goal, according to Martiros, is to keep the kids engaged in the program so that they continue with it throughout high school. “We’re trying to build a pipeline of kids who can relate to the next generation,” she said.
According to Martiros and Gabrielian, funds are currently being raised to purchase keyboards for Lincoln Street School that could be used in a similar after-school program with lessons and additional practice time (https://www.donorschoose.org/project/opportuneity-awaits/4833653/). Currently, the school doesn’t have any after-school programs.
OpporTUNEity also has a partnership with the Worcester County Jail & House of Correction that is crafted around a songwriting program. Staff there had been looking to form a music therapy program for the inmates and contacted OpporTUNEity after hearing about it. They crafted a safe way to introduce guitars and other musical instruments into the facility and created a therapeutic program that combines songwriting, team-building and individual expression, according to Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis.
“The guys we work with in songwriting class are all in recovery,” Martiros said. “They build connections. It’s really amazing.”
The first session, which ran for 13 weeks, had a great response, with 15 inmates enrolled, according to Evangelidis. It concluded with what he called a “very unusual ceremony” for the jail, because inmates were allowed to invite one guest to the performance.
“We filled the entire first concert,” Evangelidis said. “It was a very special day. It was a watershed moment for the Worcester County House of Correction.”
The program there was about a month into its second session when COVID-19 forced its suspension, according to Evangelidis. With the jail currently prohibiting visitors, in-person teaching is on hold, but the inmates in the program are able to still access the instruments and can write and reflect. Evangelidis said it will return as soon as possible, adding, “We have high hopes, high expectations, that this program will flourish as it had.”
As for OpporTUNEity at the schools, the program as students and instructors all knew it changed after COVID-19 forced the governor to close Massachusetts public schools, first only until April, and then through the end of spring vacation and, finally, for the rest of the academic year. But even before schools were closed long-term, those involved with OpporTUNEity quickly moved forward in establishing an online presence for the Lincoln Street and Burncoat Middle students.
“We took the lead in building out the virtual classroom to be able to continue offering music classes to our students,” Sable said. “It has been rewarding to come together to find a way to make sure music continues to reach the children.”
Using a combination of the Flipgrid app and Class Tag and Google Classroom platforms, 15 lead teachers from OpporTUNEity created an online learning experience for the students by posting a welcome video and music tutorials and assignments. Teachers also uploaded videos of themselves performing. Students could then post their own videos to show what they had been learning through the online platform. The program continued in that format until May 15, when Anna Maria’s spring semester concluded.
“Continuing programs like OpporTUNEity is important in reducing the distance barrier in education our students are experiencing during this pandemic,” Gabrielian said. “We are extremely grateful for the Anna Maria College students who have made sure this program can continue.”
Although there were some obstacles at first to the online program — some of the kids were accessing the platforms using a cellphone and some not at all due to lack of equipment or internet service — shifting the program to an internet-based platform served as a way for those involved to stay connected.the program has been a way for those involved to stay connected.
“For so many of the kids, it’s a lifeline for them. It’s a light for them,” Martiros said regarding the importance of continuing the program despite school being closed. “Learning (music) is not the most important thing right now. Giving them something to hang onto is the most important thing.”
Sable, who is one of the lead teachers for the Creative Expressions class, agreed. “Not only are we teaching them music, we are a support system. Everyone needs everyone right now,” she said. “… We’re still connected. Not in the same way, but we can still feel that strong sense of community.”
Kropo added, “It makes me feel like there’s a lot more that we can give them. This may be the only essential thing in their lives. Maybe, maybe not, but just knowing there’s an impact that music can bring to their lives.”
Usually, the program has two concerts — one in December and another in the springtime — to showcase what the students have learned. “It’s a big deal. We make them dress up. We invite their parents,” Martiros said. “They learn achievement, how to be celebrated. It’s a really special day.”
And for the college students, she added, the performances are a “live product of their work. They see their work coming together on stage.”
Though there wasn't a traditional performance this year, the instructors will continue to post videos and assignments, interact with the students and spread the joy of music through the program online. “If anything positive comes out of this, it will be we can run OpporTUNEity in an online format,” Martiros said. But, for now, “we just want to know you’re okay and you’re safe and you’re healthy,” she said of the students.
“I hope that when we go back, the kids are still as enthusiastic about music,” Sable said. “My biggest hope is that they don’t lose that sense of music in the time we’re not together. I think overall, I’d be so happy if they even just participated 100 percent. I care so much what they’re getting out of it, rather than a final product.”