Skip to content

Universal Schools: The Sound of Education.

October 21, 2014

Universal02Text and images by Laura Newberry.

The kindergarteners lay like planks on the carpeted floor of the darkened classroom. The first notes of Coldplay’s “Fix You” play as Kendra Balmer tells the kids to keep their hands to themselves. They’re inches away from one another.

Balmer, their teacher, directs a laser pointer at the ceiling. Each time the red dot hits one of the industrial box lights, the kids clap.

“When you try your best and you don’t succeed.”


“When you get what you want and not what you need.”


It’s hard to imagine 5-year-olds meditating– but that’s almost what it looks like they’re doing.

“I want them to feel comfortable here,” Balmer says of her pupils after they leave for the day. “They don’t have to think about anything else for 45 minutes except having fun, being in an environment where they aren’t judged.”

The kindergarten through sixth grade students who attend Universal Daroff Charter School are mostly black and 99 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

That’s true across the board for the 11 charter schools run by Universal Companies, a community development organization founded by Philly music legend and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Kenny Gamble. Most of the companies’ schools were acquired within the past five years.

Despite Gamble’s background, the actual music programs for Universal Schools are still getting off the ground. That’s mainly due to a funding gap – an unfortunate reality many schools face, and made worse by the fact that charter schools receive only 75 percent of the funding that public schools do. Several of the schools were taken over by Universal in June 2013, so programs are being built from the ground up.

Universal01But that hasn’t kept Universal from making headway. Because most students’ families can’t afford to buy or rent instruments, the violins, guitars and the like used in classrooms and after-school band and orchestra groups were all donated by nonprofits or community members.

Those gifted instruments and mandatory music classes starting at the elementary level make a big difference, administrators and teachers say.

Music is being used to get students interested in school as they continue to face heavy obstacles outside of it: single-parent households, violent crime, hunger and occasionally even homelessness.

“We’re using music across the curriculum to energize and invigorate the student population,” Universal Companies CEO Rahim Islam explains. “But it’s raggedy right now. It’s just starting. You gotta look at this thing 10 years out. And then you’ll see it thriving.”

When administrators are asked if Universal schools are music-centered, they’re quick to say no. And at this point, they wouldn’t say they offer more in terms of music programs than regular public schools.

What sets the system of schools apart, Islam says, is the push to provide outlets and stepping stones for all students to succeed, not just those who are academically gifted. That’s especially important for black students, he says, who he believes thrive in vibrant and tactile environments.

“The African American community is a very, very emotional community,” Islam says. “And I think music allows that expression. Our education should be reflective of that.”

Crystal Gary-Nelson, principal at West Philly Universal Bluford Charter School, makes sure music is a part of her K-6 students’ day even before the first bell rings.

A select number of students are chosen to play along with an upbeat song on drums and bass in the schoolyard. Lately it’s been Pharrell’s “Happy.” Students are encouraged to dance their way into school, smiles plastered onto their faces as they greet their homeroom teachers.

Gary-Nelson says the benefits of the musical procession are two-fold: it motivates students to get to school on time and it acts as a behavioral tool.

Three years ago, on-time attendance was at 87 percent, Gary-Nelson says. This year it’s climbed to 95 percent, a fact the principal attributes to the musical morning festivities.

The students chosen to play the instruments are what Gary-Nelson calls “troubled students.” This incentive through music has made a difference for these kids especially, she contends.

“My boys here, they’re hard. They don’t cry very easily,” she says. “But they’ll cry when they’re not involved.”

Universal03Steven Morris, the music teacher who coordinates the makeshift morning drum-line, tries to maintain a similar morale in his classroom.

Morris was born and raised in the West Philly neighborhood he teaches in. He says he understands what his kids need because in many respects, he’s seen first-hand what these kids go through before and after school.

“They have to deal with a lot more struggles than what happens here,” he says after an 11 a.m. class at Bluford. “And if I can’t help them deal with those, I can’t really help them.”

As he teaches a fourth-grade class the words and notes to “Something For Me, Something For You,” written by a group of students in the wake of Sept. 11, you can see the kids progressively get into the piece – tapping their fingers, bobbing the heads, their voices growing louder in a hip-hop cadence that seem to match the intensity of the song’s words.

“It’s about love and peace and/Respecting each other/You shouldn’t judge somebody/Just because of their color/Yo!” Morris says he tries to keep his instruction urban. That’s what his students are used to, and the lessons learned through songs they enjoy are more likely to become long-term memory.

Universal04Sheldae Grazier, a 10-year-old student at Bluford, says she looks forward to music class all day. She wants to learn guitar – an opportunity that she’ll have through after-school music classes once she hits 6th grade.

“I want to make loud, loud noise,” she says, donning a plaid jumper uniform for Universal girls. “It just gets people dancing.”
Back at Daroff, Kendra Balmer’s students dance and sing to Matisyahu’s “One Day.”

“Sometimes in my tears I drown/But I never let it get me down/So when negativity surrounds/I know some day it’ll all turn around.”

They’re practicing for a school-wide, end-of-year performance that will include the Daroff rock band, concert band and girls’ choir.

It’s these kids’ first week in a daily, nine-week-long music course with Balmer, whose gentle guitar strumming might be the first exposure they’ve had to live music. She says their home situations are always in the back of her head. Their lives influence every lesson, every song chosen for them. She already calls them by name. And when she talks and sings, they listen.

Having a music teacher who can tap into the potential of students, especially those who have difficulty in academics, is essential.

“It’s all about tuning into the gifts and talents of students, no matter if it’s music or fine arts or sports,” she says. “They have to recognize that they have a place in this world.”

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: