SANTA FE SPRINGS — Like most area middle schools, Lake Center Middle School here has a music program with band and chorus, but two teachers there have come up with a unique way to use music as a means of communication with nine mentally handicapped youngsters.
The program will continue this year with six students.
“It started last November when chorus director Grace Villagomez partnered with our special education teacher Shellie Lopez to come up with the program,” Lake Center Principal Bill Crean said.
“I got a brain storm when I found a copy of Music Is Elementary [a company which publishes articles and catalogs for music therapy accessories] in my school mailbox,” Villagomez said.
“I allocated about $1,600 in site funds and donations for musical instruments such as tambourines, maracas, bells and music materials, which they used to teach the students skills,” Crean added.
At the end of the past school year, improvement in various goals and learning by the youngsters vastly improved, the teachers said.
“Even at the beginning of the sessions, the students were more responsive to verbal commands,” Lopez said. “They seemed happier, excited to learn and retained their lessons better.”
For example, the teachers communicated with two non-verbal students using a drum, with the student being taught to hit the top part of the drum for yes and the bottom of the drum for no. They used music and rhythm to help teach counting, said Crean, who has been the principal at Lake Center for three years.
“The students seemed to enjoy it and look forward to the class,” he added.
“Grace did her research and learned the potential of music in teaching,” Crean said.
The two teachers used music and the instruments to help the students reach various goals in their individual education plans, which are legally mandatory for all special education students.
Villagomez said the students enjoyed singing while shaking a maraca or beating a drum. Because some students are unable to grip an instrument, there are bells that sit on the table and chime when a button on the stem is pushed, Lopez said.
Other instruments include a maraca with a thin, rounded handle for those who can’t open their hands well. There are also percussion instruments, which can be attached to the students’ arms, Villagomez said.
Thus while singing or listening to a compact disc, students keep time to the music and exercise their arms, Lopez said.
“We have a 45-minute session on Tuesdays and Thursdays. When they get off the bus they ask ‘is this a music day,’” Lopez added.
The two teachers found they had a lot in common and a musical background.
“I played in bands and sang in the choirs,” said Lopez, a graduate of Cal State Stanislaus in Northern California and a teacher in the Little Lake School District for six years.
Villagomez plays piano and has a vocal background. She is a graduate of Cal State Los Angeles and has been in the district for five years.
The two teachers say they would like to see the program continued at Lake Center and even expanded to other schools in the district, which covers Santa Fe Springs, northern Norwalk and northeast Downey and operates two middle schools and seven elementary schools.
Villagomez said she plans to write grants seeking more funding and has found support from Santa Fe Springs Mayor Juanita Trujillo. The City Council there annually allocates grants to schools for music and art-related programs.
Members of the community appear to support the program.
“We did a demonstration before the school board in June and got a standing ovation,” Crean said, adding that it is still a pilot program and too soon to evaluate it.