After the school day was over at John Moffet Elementary, eager students sat attentively in an auditorium holding a tabla (“hand drum”) in one arm while rhythmically tapping with the other.
With the help of Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, Moffet has been able to maintain an after-school program that focuses on enriching students through art and music education.
Al-Bustan Seeds Of Culture is an Arab culture nonprofit that hosts this after-school program. The purpose of the program is to teach and promote cross-cultural understanding to the children though rhythm, art and language. This is implemented through traditional Arab drumming, choir and culturally related art projects.
Moffet recently experienced a cut that hurt its arts program and had teachers packing the paint brushes away. In the 2014-2015 academic year, Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture received a grant from the William Penn Foundation that aided Moffet in continuing with its arts program after school.
Carmen Navarro, principal at Moffet, said the school took a big hit when funding was decreased. Navarro explained that class sizes have gone from about 25 students per teacher with at least one additional member of support staff to a 30-to-1 student-teacher ratio.
Support staff who were hired to help with everyday functions were cut in addition to art classes.
“Most students go to music twice a week. Ideally, I would like to offer arts as well,” said Navarro. “To have more flexibility with the program and do back and forth quarters – art being one quarter and music being the other – but right now the only art we only do is through music.”
John Moffet Elementary isn’t the only school in Philadelphia’s school district that has experienced severe setbacks in funding.
In 2012, the district entered deficit mode, which caused officials to cut budgets within schools and lay off thousands of teachers, nurses and counselors. There were 676 teachers laid off, most which were educators of reading, math, music and special education.
These are crucial subjects to a student’s overall education. Involvement in the arts has proven to help students succeed academically and increase willingness to learn and understand subjects considered to be core, such as math, English and science.
There was a lot of concern after Gov. Tom Corbett took office in 2011 and cut $1 billion from Pennsylvania education statewide. Philadelphia public schools dealt with a $304 million budget shortfall, which in turn resulted in the elimination of art and music programs.
In September 2015, State Auditor General DePasquale reported that the state budget impasse pushed 17 school districts to borrow $346 million just to make sure that schools stay running.
The Philadelphia school district is the eighth largest in the country. Of Philadelphia’s 300 schools, 86 of those are charters, 149 are elementary schools, 16 are middle schools and 49 of them are high schools. A 30 percent portion of the district’s $2.6 billion budget goes toward payments for operating charter schools.
Philadelphia educates more low-income families than any other district in Pennsylvania. About 80 percent of the city’s students qualify for free lunches. After-school programs sometimes serve as another way for these children to get an additional meal since they might not be going home to one.
Research has found students with lower socio-economic status who are involved with the arts are more likely to be more motivated and involved socially.
“I believe that any kind of experiential learning is really important for kids,” said Nora Elmarzouky, director of programs at Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture. “But particularly arts, music and things like that give them a way of expression and give them different ways of looking at the world.”
Caleb Diaz, a recent Temple University graduate in psychology, expressed concern over the lack of arts and music education that would create a void in children’s education. Diaz’s senior thesis focused on music education’s effect on language acquisition and youth instructors at NEST in Philadelphia.
“In our current state of focus, our education system is attempting to increase logical thinking through systematic educational standards,” said Diaz. “However, in doing so, teachers are losing the ability to creatively apply music and the arts into their curriculum, possibly limiting children and youths’ creative and analytical cognitive processes. Both are necessary for an economically successful and artistic society.”
Directly across the street from John Moffet Elementary is Mascher Space Cooperative, located at 155 Cecil B. Moore Ave. This is a community-supported dance studio, where artists-in-residence teach dance classes for children.
One of their primary partners is Moffet, whose fifth grade students participate in dance classes every week.
“All of the kids do tap [dancing] because it’s included in their school day,” said Christina Gesualdi, the community engagement coordinator at Mascher Space. “There is a lot of crossover in terms of rhythm because they do drumming and singing in the Arabic after school program.”
Outside sources have stepped in to fill in the gaps when it comes to funding. Al-Bustan was able to receive funding through the William Penn Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts and Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation last year in order to keep the program running and also expand it.
The William Penn Foundation is dedicated to enhancing the Philadelphia region through funding various programs. In 2014, the foundation gave $21 million to enhance learning in the classroom to various schools, and awarded $3.1 million worth of grants to organizations throughout the Philadelphia area.
To stay optimistic about the future of education, Moffet School has begun a service called “Friends of Moffet” for parents, organizations and prospective parents to help fill the gap between teachers, families and the community.
Although, when it comes to relying on the state for funding, Navarro doesn’t see the state coming up with a solution to the funding problem any time in the immediate future.
“We have to prepare for whatever happens. We’re in the business of educating – we have to use whatever resources we get and we have to do the best that we can,” said Navarro. “We certainly know how to stretch by reaching out to community agencies and working in conjunction, hoping we get additional resources.”
Fortunately, Moffet School’s Arabic after-school program has proven popular with students and the community. Peg Laramee, former ESL teacher at Moffet, said Palestinians form the bulk of the school’s Arabic-speaking population, at around 12 percent to 13 percent. The non-Arab students are overwhelmingly from a Latino background.
One student, Angel Perez, goes home to practice drumming every day. He shares his musical experience with his family by demonstrating his percussion abilities on tables and other hollow objects throughout the house.
“My mom loves to dance to [my drumming]. If I do melody, she’ll dance to it or if I do a random beat, she’ll dance to it,” said Perez. “I like singing, drumming and also drumming with the kids on Tuesdays because they’re starters. I would rather help with Mr. Hafez [Kotain] and help with the other kids to get their drums arranged.”
Students will finish out this school year with a spring concert that will showcase the musical achievements students have been working on all year.
– Text, images and videos by Emily Ganser and Raya Abdelaal