By Matthew Tungate
Parent involvement is important in any successful school, and at McBrayer Elementary School in Rowan County, it has led to sweet music.
It is thanks to parent Christina Hartke Towell, a professional violinist whose passion for music and education helped the school launch what has become a very successful string program.
The program’s success led Towell to be selected as the recipient of the 2012 Governor’s Awards in the Arts Education Award. Towell will be recognized Oct. 9 in Frankfort with the award, which is bestowed by the Kentucky Arts Council to recognize Kentuckians, businesses and arts organizations for outstanding contribution, achievement in and support of the arts.
The idea for the McBrayer string program started in 2006, when Towell was a stay-at-home mom giving private music lessons at her house. Her children attended the school – the youngest was starting kindergarten – and the Rowan County school district did not have a string program. So Towell discussed the idea of starting one at the school with Principal Rhonda Banks.
“We wanted the string program to be accessible to all the students at McBrayer Elementary free of charge regardless of socioeconomic status, including those with physical and hearing impairments,” Towell said.
Thanks to a $99,000 grant from the W. Paul and Lucille Caudill Little Foundation, Towell was able to buy instruments and provide a stipend for any student who wanted to participate. Now, the string program has expanded into Rowan County Middle and Rowan County Senior High schools and includes about 140 students, with another 50 on a waiting list.
Towell offers private and small-group lessons through the program at McBrayer Elementary School. Students are allowed to leave their regular class for 30 minutes once a week to participate, she said. To get into the program, parents must send a letter of interest or teachers can nominate a student who might benefit from string instruction, Towell said.
Mary Jerde, Morehead State University Arts and Humanities Council director, nominated Towell for the Governor’s Award. Jerde is well aware of Towell’s abilities and accomplishments. Besides the Rowan string program, Towell also teaches violin, viola and a performance class at Morehead State University, and she directs the university orchestra.
“For many years now I have observed the impact that Christina has had on her students. She interacts with her students in a gentle, loving, motherly way that inspires and transforms them into sophisticated, mature and ambitious young adults,” Jerde said. “I have heard numerous parents speak fondly of the extra effort Christina will put in to help their children learn and succeed, and how delighted they are to have free access to such a wonderful resource as a string program in their children’s schools. Whoever knew that one person would be able to bring such an educationally powerful, successful program to Rowan County. I wish all children could have the opportunity to be in Christina’s string program.”
Jerde said the string program has affected more than just students’ playing ability.
“I’ve heard many parents speak of how their children became more focused in developing their performance skills and that this focus has also helped them become more serious-minded and goal-oriented in other aspects of their lives, especially in other academic studies,” she said. “I’ve heard teachers talk about the positive attitudes and impact Christina’s school program has had on the children in her program, especially for those children that would not normally be able to participate due to the costs generally associated with such a quality program. I have seen the joy in the children’s faces when they have performed well, as they stand tall with self-confidence and pride in their accomplishments.”
Darinda Ramey-Marriner, Family Resource Center coordinator for McBrayer and Clearfield elementary schools, is one of the parents who appreciates what the string program has done for her child.
Ramey-Marriner’s daughter, Emma, started violin lessons in the 4th grade through the string program and is still with Towell in the 11th grade this year.
Ramey-Marriner said that besides the obvious benefit of developing a lifelong interest in music, her daughter has the opportunity to meet other students and play in the Tri-State Orchestra. She also mentors younger students and may eventually teach younger children. Her daughter also may be able to get a scholarship to play in a college orchestra.
“Taking violin lessons also instills responsibility and dedication to oneself and others,” Ramey-Marriner said.
Ramey-Marriner supports the program so much she even gave up some of her space in the Family Resource Center for the string program.
“I have a small room in my office that I agreed to let her use. Before Christina acquired the grant from the Little Foundation to teach full time in the elementary school, she was teaching on the stage in the cafeteria. I saw her there one morning and asked her if she would like to come into my office and use my extra room. She stayed,” Ramey-Marriner said, laughing.
Rowan County is lucky to have Towell, Ramey-Marriner said.
“Christina is remarkably talented and could choose to play professionally, and sometimes does, but her passion is teaching children. Her energy knows no bounds” she said. “I am amazed, on a daily basis, how she makes music happen.”
Rowan County Superintendent Marvin Moore agreed with Ramey-Marriner, noting that learning music has a strong connection with mathematics understanding. Students also learn the discipline that comes with practice and confidence that comes from performing in public.
Other districts should use the parental resources they have in their community, Moore said.
“When you have parents, such as Mrs. Towell, who want to offer their talents to enhance a student’s education, it is important that the school and/or the district look to these parents as assets,” he said. “Make use of your assets wisely and, as in the case of the Rowan County Strings Program under the direction of Mrs. Towell, your students will bloom.”
Jerde said the grant for the string program ends in 2014, so its future is uncertain.
“So we are all anxiously seeking funding elsewhere to sustain this program and expand it to include all schools in Rowan County,” she said. “We also wish a program like this could be offered in all schools across the commonwealth, simply for the enormous impact string performance can have on improving the overall intellectual success of educational programs and for the quality of life it brings to communities.”
Towell hopes to continue the program and has found already that “with help it is possible to start and grow an arts education program in an underserved area of Eastern Kentucky even when the schools do not offer the program.”
“Children and their parents are very interested in performing and knowing more about our musical heritage,” she continued. “When the program began, I did not even imagine there would be this much demand for string education even at just one school.”
Christina Towell, email@example.com, (606) 784-1204