[This article first appeared on TruthAtlas.com. TruthAtlas is an online news source featuring multimedia stories about people and ideas making the world a better place. Learn more at www.truthatlas.com.]
When Gov. Jerry Brown took office in 2011, California faced such swelling debt that the state deficit topped $27 billion. Budget cuts to the public school system made by the governor and his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, increased class sizes, resulted in fewer school days, laid-off teachers, cancelled summer school, and limited resources like new textbooks. Between the school year beginning in 2007 and the year ending in 2010 alone, K-12 schools faced $6.3 billion cut from their budgets.
In 2009, like many schools facing hard choices, the rural Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District in Fresno County was forced to cut its music program due to lack of funds.
But the music didn’t die. In 2012, the district found a novel way to reduce its energy costs and recoup funds to bolster its academic and arts programs. With a zero-percent loan from the state, the district installed solar structures at three out of five district schools.
Solar will save Firebaugh schools $750,000 over the first five years of the program, according to Danny Barragan, the district’s maintenance, operations, and transportation director. The district estimates that over 25 years, it will save a projected $9 million.
Which meant that in a school district where 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, smart use of solar energy brought the music program back to life.
In the 2012-2013 school year, Firebaugh hired first-time teacher and percussionist Ryan Dirlam, 24, to relaunch music for fourth through 12th grades.
“I got hired with the expectation that I would be starting a music program from zero, to build something that would be competitive with some of our local schools in the Fresno/Clovis area that have been established for a long time,” he says.
In a single day, he would go from teaching high school choir to middle school choir and two beginning band classes. His final stop was the elementary school, which had been awarded a VH1 Save the Music grant for a keyboard lab. In its first year, the music program included 435 students district-wide.
Like many music teachers, Ryan’s job means long hours, rehearsals, and weekends that bleed from Friday into Monday filled with work and planning for shows and performances.
“But it’s all worth it in the end when you get to see that big performance come together, and you see students walking around like rock stars the next day,” Ryan says. “Or you have parents coming up to you saying ‘I didn’t know my kid could actually sing.’ You’re creating a better moment for a family or for a student.”
Anyone who has ever picked up an instrument for the first time and expected music to come out knows the harsh reality—music takes hard work and a lot of practice to push past those awkward squawks and missed notes. But within a year, Ryan’s combined district band of high school students and the intermediate middle school band was ready to perform at two football games.
As some students were still learning to play their instruments, they weren’t yet ready to go into field shows and parades. But with more practice, about 45 students helped ensure “the community could finally have a band at a game that wasn’t a visiting team,” Ryan says.
The solar panels have been just as important a success.
“They were put in around the district as a means to save money over the long term, but especially with such an agricultural and farming community, we want to do the best things for our community that we can,” Ryan says, knowing how important it is to preserve the environment in an area where the earth itself is crucial to the local way of life. “We want to show we are at the forefront of education, whether it’s in technology in the classroom or technology out of the classroom to power the classroom.”
Thanks to state passage of the new Local Control Funding Formula last summer, California school districts like Firebaugh know that their budgets will stabilize into the future. In Firebaugh, this meant hiring an additional music teacher to cover second through fifth grades. Another VH1 Save the Music grant funded a second keyboard lab for elementary students.
This year, Firebaugh has 809 students in its music program. Among them, Ryan notes, he’s had “plenty of students tell me that music is the only thing that they enjoy when they come to school.”
So often, music, art, and drama create an educational safe haven for students who feel like misfits in other classrooms. Ryan has had students who are considered tough kids or who struggle at school, and who had attitude and behavioral issues. But after a semester and a half together, he says, “Some of these students are beginning to show me that they care.”
These are the kids who hush their classmates when Ryan needs to talk to the class, and who put in extra work outside of school to practice and improve.
“It’s actually very rewarding to see some of the students changing for the better,” he adds. He believes the work these students put into the visual and performing arts will improve their life skills and benefit them in other classrooms as well.
And as multiple studies have validated, music does help students academically across the board, from dexterity and early language development to overall increases in neural activity and increased test scores.
When Ryan was studying to be a music educator, he was frequently warned against going into a dying field, training for a job with high expectations and low pay. He was earning his credentials at Fresno State just as the massive budget cuts were rocking school districts statewide, and arts and music programs were being cut.
“All those things were considered secondary in need, because everyone was so focused on what our testing scores were, and they didn’t stop to think about how the arts can benefit children,” he says, noting that schools have begun noticing how much visual and performing arts affect students’ character—and do build test scores.
In Firebaugh, a small school district has become a model for the nation, using the clean energy of a sun-powered school system to keep its students and community invested in the arts. And each month, as the program evolves, Ryan happily watches the growth of future artists, actors, and musicians—and perhaps some teachers, too.
“There’s no better feeling,” he says. “It’s better than any money anyone can offer, because you’re changing a student’s life for the better.” Like so many teachers, Ryan values that transformation in his students, and in Firebaugh, clean energy has helped make that investment of time, care and mentorship possible.
• For more information visit Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District
• Sarah Stankorb grew up in the Rust Belt among people who, despite everything the world had shown them, believed hard work would result in the American dream. She is a contributing writer for CNNMoney and GOOD, and her articles and essays have appeared in publications like The New York Times, TheAtlantic.com, Salon, Kiwi, Babble, and The Morning News. She studied ethics at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School and has written a coming-of-age novel about growing up and losing faith.