Rock to the Future, an after-school program, offers Kensington and neighboring residents free music lessons, homework help and a social environment for students who would otherwise never see the benefits of music education.
Jessica McKay, founding director of Rock to the Future, started the program with concrete goals in mind. A Temple University graduate with a degree in Business Administration and Economics, McKay used to work for Janney Montgomery Scott, an investment firm in Center City Philadelphia. However, with music being a big part of her life growing up and still is today, McKay saw an area of education in Philadelphia that needed some attention.
“In Philadelphia, most schools don’t offer a music program and if they do have a music program it is not a very good one and there is no individual attention,” McKay said. “Budget cuts are everywhere. Areas that have quality music programs even in the city, those are usually the top schools in the better neighborhoods.”
McKay wanted to do something about this and offer students in lower-income areas, such as Kensington, another chance at something that impacted her own life.
“I’m really passionate about music and a big advocate for quality education,” McKay said. “When your involved in a program that has a time commitment you are required to get involved and do something rather than just sitting around and getting into trouble.”
After receiving a $15,000 Women for Social Innovation grant in March 2010, the program was recently able to open its doors in September 2010. Rock to the Future rents out space at St. Michael’s Church located on East Cumberland Street. The large room has sectioned out areas with couches to relax on, open space to move around, small rooms for private lessons or tutoring, tables to do homework and a stage for band practices. The young program is still working on finding financial stability, but is successfully getting the word out to the music community in the area to find adequate instrument and equipment donations.
“It’s a good location to reach our target demographic because it is in the middle of Kensington,” McKay said.
The program is open to all students in Philadelphia but because Rock to the Future is an after-school program and requires time, most of the students are from the Kensington and neighboring areas. Currently the program consists of 22 boys and girls, ages ranging from 9 to 18 years old.
The participating kids are part of their own band and play popular songs as well as their own originals. They have scheduled music lessons, band practices and homework time.
The staff are instructors that give private music lessons, but also act as mentors to the students.
Assistant director at Rock to the Future Joshua Craft said: “I invested my time in the program because I believe it’s making a difference. Many of the first year students were struggling in math and other subjects and it’s awesome to see them this year helping tutor some of the younger students.”
The program also allows the students to perform and show off their progress. Rock to the Future preformed at the Rittenhouse Square tree lighting, Keller Williams Grand Opening in Rittenhouse Square, benefit at PhilaMOCA: First Friday Extravaganza, kids corner on WXPN radio and most have performed at the World Café Live a few times.
But music proficiency is not the only thing going on in the program, instead they use music education to foster an environment to learn other skills as well. Rock to the Future offers students a safe environment to grow, learn, play and develop.
“The kids learn how to be responsible, they need to take care of the donated instruments at the program. They also learn how to work with each other on projects as well as in their bands. Many of the kids who normally would not like each other in school, are writing songs and learning to work together,” Craft said. “The kids are working towards goals and achieving them, it’s a really awesome thing to see happen.”
Statistics show that the program is improving grades and PSSA test scores as well.
“Sixty-two percent of the students increased their grades in at least one core subject. All the other students who didn’t increase their grades already had an A or B average and now all of our students hold that average,” McKay said.
At a time in their lives when adolescence is uncomfortable and awkward, the students have a safe, judgment free environment to turn to. Grades improve with peer and staff homework help, but confidence increases with each performance and social skills increase with requirements to work as a member of a team.
“Everybody has that person that really influenced their lives in high school or middle school and it’s so exciting to know that hopefully that will be our staff for these kids. In 15 years from now these kids will still remember the experience they had and how it changed their life,” McKay said. “For me, it’s so fulfilling.”
The students are learning the art of music, but more than that they are building character and maturing into people with established strengths.
“The idea of the program is simple yet really effective,” Craft said. “We are changing the kids lives with music in a positive way.”