CARMEL VALLEY — As a flutist, Michelle Zhang can appreciate the positive impact visual and performing arts can have on education. So when she learned last spring that massive cuts to the education budget would nearly eliminate music and art classes in elementary schools, she knew she had to act.
“I thought that was a huge shame,” she said.
This past September, with the help of about two dozen volunteers, she launched a free after-school arts program at Logan Elementary School. What makes her effort unlike most is that not too long ago, Michelle was an elementary school student herself at Torrey Hills.
Currently a junior at Torrey Pines High School, she developed StARTS, or Students for the Arts, at the end of her sophomore year to create a program that would ensure the continuation of arts education in public schools. She purposefully chose to look beyond her fairly upscale Carmel Valley neighborhood.
Michelle sent e-mails describing her program to about 30 schools in the least affluent areas of the San Diego Unified School District. She ended up at Logan because “they were really welcoming and they moved the fastest,” she said.
“From the very first e-mail from Michelle, I have been very impressed by her energy, organization and follow through,” Logan Elementary Principal Antonio Villar said.
Michelle recruited her 25 volunteer instructors by talking to friends and posting fliers at her high school. Mostly juniors and seniors, nearly all participate in their field of expertise at and outside of school. “They’re all really good at what they do,” Michelle, 16, said.
Once a week, with the help of parent drivers, they carpool 25 miles south to Logan Elementary to teach one-hour classes in either piano, guitar, violin, dance, art or singing to about 70 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
“There’s a huge demand,” Michelle said. “The kids were apprehensive at first, but they are so amazingly enthusiastic and really respectful. “
The music classes are semiprivate lessons in which two to three students at a time learn on instruments donated by the volunteers, who also raised money to buy used equipment for the program. Two of the instructors teach group dance classes, mostly to the younger elementary students.
Michelle said the biggest challenge is “planning really great classes.” She said she spends about three hours a week preparing.
“I want to make sure the kids are moving along well and learning at a good pace,” she said. “I want to make sure that hour is the most fruitful hour.
“We focus on technique and rhythm. We teach them how to read notes and the proper way to hold their hands,” she said. “We really want to make sure they learn it. We give them study notes. We give quizzes, worksheets and all kinds of activities. We want to give them the chance to excel properly.”
Her efforts appear to be paying off. Michelle said some of the students are already composing their own songs, despite not having instruments at home. “They come in and tell us they practice with a stick or at their desk,” she said. “They remember what we’ve taught them and that’s really gratifying.”
As dedicated as she is to keeping arts alive in public schools, Michelle said the purpose of her program is actually twofold.
“This arts program is crucial in not only inspiring artistic creativity in young children and giving them a chance to excel in the arts, but also as a mentoring program to let children just be with successful high school students whom they can look up to,” she said.
“Our students enjoy the music, art and dance lessons,” Villar said. “They are eager to participate and are acquiring new skills every week. It is heartwarming to see both groups spending time together, forgetting any language or cultural differences, and just enjoying each other’s company and learning new things.”
Michelle is hoping to culminate her program with a year-end recital for parents, teachers and other students. She would also like to expand StARTS to other schools in the district. To donate used instruments or money, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.