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AL: Students at Mary B. Austin respond to creative culture and high expectations


Enen Yu, co-concertmaster for the Mobile Symphony, works with strings students at Mary B. Austin Elementary.

Summary: Music, fine arts, community partnerships, and curriculum implementation based on hard data help this school foster students' academic improvement. While focused attention on both academics and music education are part of the school's culture, school leaders have also seen a narrowing of student achievement gaps in increased test scores by all students and particularly economically disadvantaged students.

State and federal education officials are singing the praises of Mary B. Austin Elementary in Mobile, Alabama, because the school is garnering awards and rewards for its combined success with music education and student achievement.

Mary B. Austin was recognized by the US Department of Education as a Blue Ribbon School for 2006. According to the Department, Blue Ribbon Schools reflect the goals of high standards and accountability inherent in the No Child Left Behind Act. The school also received the Alabama State Department of Education Accountability Reward for 2006 for Advancing the Challenge because Mary B. Austin students outperformed the state average.

Principal Jacquelyn Zeigler said the influence of music and other arts programs at the school have helped to foster the academic improvements. “I cannot in any way deny that the arts had something to do with that. I don’t have data at my fingertips, but the infusion of the arts into our curriculum has had a major impact on our student achievement for all students. You never know what will hit the right chord for the right child.”

District Characteristics
Name: Mary B. Austin Elementary
State: AL
Type: Surburban
Grades: K–5
Enrollment: 438
Students per teacher: 14.2

Enrollment Characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: n.a.
English language learners: n.a.
Students with disabilities: n.a
White: 46.8%
Black: 50.9%
Hispanic: 0.2%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 0.9%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 0%
Other: n.a.
Source: SchoolMatters

 While Ziegler lacks hard data about arts and student achievement, she and her staff do use data to examine what is and is not working with students. For example, when school staff members examined disaggregated data on the academic performance of student groups, they found that black males needed some special attention. Two nearby high schools, one public and one private, send their students to mentor and tutor Mary B. Austin students who need that special attention, whether for social or academic reasons. A local church also sends volunteers to mentor and tutor students at the school.

Data drives the school’s instruction, Zeigler said. Because of that, teachers have embraced the Alabama Reading Initiative, a sound program using intervention strategies that promote higher-order thinking skills. The program, Zeigler noted, has helped the school narrow student achievement gaps. The percentage of fourth grade black students exceeding standards on the reading portion of the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test (ARMT) increased from 50 percent in 2004–2005 to 69.2 percent in 2005–2006. ARMT fourth grade reading scores also showed that the percentage of economically disadvantaged students at the school who exceeded standards increased from 47.5 percent in 2004–2005 to 64.3 in 2005–2006.

Mary B. Austin’s next data-driven venture is to participate in the Alabama, Math, Science, and Technology Initiative, which will provide the school with resources, math and science specialists, and professional development.

This focused attention on both academics and music education is all part of the school’s culture. Because of the school’s great reputation, 80 percent of Mary B. Austin students transfer in from outside the school’s boundary, but Zeigler and her staff strive to create a family atmosphere with high expectations, belief in oneself and others, and a kind and generous spirit among students, she said.

When Zeigler came to Mary B. Austin eight years ago, she recognized that infusing fine arts into the curriculum could benefit students in many ways. “For a long time, doing research and reading statistical data, I found that there has been a great influence of the arts on student achievement. That piqued my interest,” she said. Then a parent proposed working with the Mobile Symphony, and a partnership was born.

Much of the music education at the school stems from support from the Mobile Symphony. Initial funding came from Mary B. Austin’s Parent-Teacher Association, and the symphony provided a matching grant. The Mobile County Public School System offers art and music classes, but Zeigler said she wanted to provide something “above and beyond” for students who were not receiving this type of instruction at their grade level.

Besides helping the school, the partnership benefits the Mobile Symphony in many ways, said Sarah Wright, the organization’s education director. In the last decade as budget cuts reduced arts funding, she said, “we realized that children in public elementary schools were receiving very little music in their school education. And schools were asking for help from arts organizations. They did not have the manpower to offer what they realized was a balanced education.”

Now, Mary B. Austin students in kindergarten through second grade participate in the Preludes program, taught by Ben Harper of the Mobile Symphony, who teaches them about the history and value of music as well as music theory. Strings classes are offered to third, fourth, and fifth graders (and some second graders) by Enen Yu, co-concertmaster for the Mobile Symphony. Yu also helps the students learn about classical music. Besides listening to rock ’n’ roll and other popular music, students should know that “there is another form of music that has been passed down for centuries,” Yu said.

Clearly, early music education can help students who are naturally gifted reach their potential, Wright noted. For those students and others, she said, the discipline of learning to play music can help students stay on task. Also, studies have shown that students who play a musical instrument perform better in school, Yu said. For example, the 2006 report Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement cites research that students who took music classes in high school tended to score higher on standardized math tests such as the SAT. “One explanation is that musical training in rhythm emphasizes proportion, patterns, and ratios expressed as mathematical relations,” said the report, published by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

Playing a stringed instrument can provide challenging exercises for the brain. “When you are playing an instrument, you have to take care of a million things,” Yu noted. “It just appears you are playing some notes. But you have to read the music, which is another language. You have to know what string to play. Both hands are doing different things.”

Learning to play a musical instrument also can help a child’s self-image. Yu recalled that after she complimented one student on doing a good job, another staff member said the praise had helped the student’s confidence. Such encouragement beyond academics can provide other avenues for students to feel successful in school.

Mary B. Austin uses the Mobile Symphony’s resources to fully incorporate the arts into core subjects and every aspect of the school, Wright said. The strings students have opportunities to play for PTA events and for their classmates. Teachers then reinforce what the students are seeing and hearing by taking them on field trips to Mobile Symphony performances.

Community involvement and support abounds at the school, including help from the Mobile Area Education Foundation and support from the school board. Community members are intricately involved in school activities, and Zeigler and her staff strive to match their talents with the school’s needs.

The partnership with the Mobile Symphony is “planting seeds,” Wright said. With pride, Zeigler noted that Mary B. Austin students already are experiencing cultural growth as a result.

Lessons Learned
  • Incorporating the arts throughout the curriculum not only reinforces the music education but also supports core academic instruction.
  • In support and recognition of the benefits of music instruction, staff members schedule appropriate times to pull students out of other classes for strings instruction.
  • Scheduling field trips and school performances helps open students’ eyes and ears to the joy of musical performances.
  • Recognizing the value of the partnership with the Mobile Symphony, Mary B. Austin’s PTA, school board, and administrators all provide financial, political, or internal support for the program.
  • Finding opportunities to praise students beyond academics increases their self-confidence and keeps them connected to learning.


Jacquelyn M. Zeigler




This story was written by Terrey Hatcher Quindlen. Quindlen, a freelance writer living in Hampstead, North Carolina. Quindlen has been writing about education issues for five years.

Posted: January 8, 2007

©2007 Center for Public Education

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