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  • Words by Stacey Bowers / Photography by Kat Wilson

Striking a Chord: Ukulele Club Brings Music and Culture to Springdale School


Springdale, Ark., is about as far from a tropical island as you can get, but if you listen closely near Monitor Elementary School, you might hear the mellifluous sound of ukuleles. Educator Julia Crane’s ukulele club is a class and community favorite, traveling to local art festivals and performing at school functions.

“I wrote my first grant asking for ukuleles in the spring of 2014 because in my field, I work with a student body that is about 30% Marshallese on average,” Ms. Crane said. “The Marshallese instrument of choice is the ukulele, introduced to them from their neighbor, Hawaii. Wherever there are Marshallese people, young people of all ages can be heard playing ukuleles. This is a huge part of their culture.”

The grant Ms. Crane referred to is part of Thea’s Art Closet, a program of the North Little Rock-based nonprofit Thea Foundation, which, along with other programs to bolster the arts in Arkansas schools, provides art supplies and creative materials to classrooms across the state that need help with funding arts programs or want to incorporate creativity into teaching other subjects. Thea Foundation has helped fund all of Ms. Crane’s ukuleles, about 19 total.

“Although many find success in our schools, some still struggle academically. The adjustment to American schools and culture can leave a student insecure and unaware of their individual strengths,” Ms. Crane said. “Knowledge of their culture allows us to build on their musical talents and provide an opportunity for these children to feel a sense of pride in themselves and their culture. The more I showcase their skills, the more they begin to realize that what they can do is quite remarkable.”

Most of the students in Ms. Crane’s club are Marshallese, but the club is popular throughout the student body with children of all backgrounds. Ms. Crane said that the support her school has received from Thea Foundation has helped her students enormously. “More than 80% of the students I serve are below the poverty line, and at least 60% of these are English language learners,” she explained. “Our entire student body would be considered bus riders, as our school is rurally located. Our families struggle to keep running vehicles and provide food and rent. They simply do not have the extra funds to bus their children to music lessons or sporting events. The only exposure to these experiences our children will get is if we provide it for them. As a child of high-poverty and a dysfunctional upbringing myself, I have seen first-hand the effects on self-efficacy this lack of experiences can have on a child.”

That’s why, instead of asking students and parents to fund the ukulele club, Ms. Crane turns to Thea Foundation. Thea’s Art Closet, which provides funding for creative materials to classrooms in need, operates via DonorsChoose.org, a national classroom fundraising site that puts local fundraising requests in front of a nationwide audience of private and corporate donors. This way, Thea Foundation can double the amount of supplies given to Arkansas schools. Last year, Thea Foundation helped provide $63,000 worth of supplies to local classrooms.

Thea’s Art Closet supports classrooms in need of art supplies and other creative materials, because historically, when schools need to trim budgets, the arts are often on the chopping block. Visual arts, drama, dance, music and other art forms are often viewed as secondary electives and not as the real intellect-stimulating, confidence-building, life-changing subjects they truly are.

Research that spans decades proves that the arts, when woven throughout all subjects and when taught individually, make a huge difference in students’ academic success. A 2013 study by the University of Mississippi found that arts integration across subjects increased test scores and “significantly reduced” the achievement gap for economically disadvantaged students.

Teaching the arts for arts’ sake is arguably equally important. The National Endowment for the Arts found that young people who are very active in the arts are four times more likely to participate in a math and science fair. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, arts programs are mandatory in countries that rank among the highest for math and science test scores. Students who are involved in the arts are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, and they're more likely to graduate college.

The bottom line is that every student should have access to the arts and be encouraged to participate in an art form.

“[Psychologist] Howard Gardner tells us that children are naturally smart in a variety of ways,” Ms. Crane said. “These different intelligences include strengths in linguistics and math, while others are more left-brained and drawn to music. Although many students may struggle academically, there are other areas that simply are not pursued enough with students… [They] may struggle in reading and math, but many of them are musical by nature. If we don’t ever give them the opportunity to discover this, through clubs for example, these students may never grow up believing they are good at anything.”

Click here to find out more about Thea’s Art Closet and how to get supplies for your school. To browse the many classrooms that are fundraising now, click here.

See some of Ms. Crane's Ukulele Club perform in the video below! Prepare to have your heart melted.

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