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Soulsville Charter School
Students in Kalli Harrell’s sixth-grade science class discuss weather patterns at The Soulsville Charter School in Memphis. Credit: Alan Richard

MEMPHIS—The Soulsville Charter School in South Memphis — the neighborhood whose soul music influenced the world — once required all students to take at least one music class each year.

But educators here saw how behind some of their students were in reading and math, so even at a school linked to the iconic Stax Records, R&B is having to make more room for the three Rs.

“We initially started and said every Soulsville kid would have music every single year,” said NeShante Brown, the executive director of Soulsville and a native Memphian who came home to teach after graduating from Princeton. But “we were not a performing arts school.”

“We are definitely putting academics first,” she added.

“We are definitely putting academics first — and before music — intentionally.”

Arts advocates argue that music, drama and art classes are critical for a well-rounded education (and Brown says music should be considered an academic course). But as states have begun rolling out the Common Core standards, integrating the arts has become more challenging — even for schools like Soulsville.

Education experts note that the Common Core, a set of new guidelines in math and English meant to raise expectations for American students, mention the arts roughly 75 times. But arts and academics are “actually at war with each other for ‘kid time’” in too many schools, said Kristy Callaway, the executive director of the Arts Schools Network, a national association of arts-oriented magnet schools.

Related: Do the arts go hand in hand with Common Core?

While Soulsville tries to strike the right balance of reading and math with music courses for its predominantly black and lower-income population, nationally, students from low-income families and minority groups are significantly more likely to go without music classes than their more affluent peers, according to data collected by the Arts Education Partnership at the Council of Chief State School Officers, said Scott Jones, a senior associate with the group.

Soulsville Charter School
Students at The Soulsville Charter School in Memphis can earn “Grammy points” for exemplary behavior. The finger-snap images come from the late 1960s and 1970s’ logo of Stax Records, the soul music powerhouse that once was on the same grounds. Credit: Alan Richard

“You see a broad consensus, a policy consensus, on the [important] role of the arts in schools,” Jones said. But actual arts offerings in schools can be “spotty,” he added.

Soulsville’s experience in trying to prepare its students for college — many of whom will be the first in their families to go — while still emphasizing its connection to music— shows the trade-offs many schools face.

Soulsville opened with only sixth-graders in 2005, then added a grade each year until its first graduating class in 2012. Just a short walk across the parking lot from Soulsville stands the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, a shrine that takes visitors through the classic 1960s and 1970s music mostly written and recorded on these grounds. The museum, charter school and Stax Music Academy share a campus and are overseen by the Soulsville Foundation. The charter school also has its own independent board.

Soul music pours from outdoor speakers when teachers and students at Soulsville walk next door to tour the museum as part of their orientation and as they arrive each day for class. Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. and the MGs, Carla Thomas and Eddie Floyd made songs such as “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” “Respect,” “Soul Man,” “Theme from Shaft” and “Knock on Wood” right here.

“There’s a legacy of pride in this community. When they put the museum and all of that here … it brought back a pride that was muffled but was never killed,” said Amy Ragland, the middle school guidance counselor at Soulsville whose husband grew up in the mostly African American neighborhood. This community emerged as an artistic beacon and symbol of black-owned businesses and success. “That dream this community once had is coming back through this school.”

Soulsville Charter School
The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is situated on McLemore Avenue, next door to The Soulsville Charter School. At the famed Stax Records studios, artists such as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave and Booker T. and the MGs created music that became a global sensation in the 1960s and a powerful symbol of black culture and success. Credit: Alan Richard

So putting music second may sound like sin at Soulsville. But the new Common Core standards were tougher than anything Soulsville’s students had faced before, and educators here have one goal above all, said Brown, the executive director: to send all of their 632 students to college.

Related: Tennessee’s wavering over the Common Core discourages new teachers

While Soulsville’s graduation rate is nearly 100 percent, and almost every student makes it into college, a complex set of challenges makes keeping students enrolled once they get there a tougher task, Brown said.

To make sure its students can not only get into college, but also earn a diploma, educators said they had to make math and English the priority.

Two years ago, after Tennessee adopted the Common Core, Soulsville high school director Ashley Shores and the other administrators put plans in motion to adjust for the new standards and the computer-based tests that were scheduled to follow. Teachers started requiring students to write out their answers and explain themselves out loud, even in math and science.

“We call it rigorizing,” said Shores, one of the many young educators recruited in recent years to help turn around the struggling Memphis schools.

Soulsville Charter School
A poster in a classroom at The Soulsville Charter School in Memphis from a Grizzlies professional basketball game shows the grit students and faculty strive for. Credit: Alan Richard

In mid-May, Soulsville was named the ninth-best high school in Tennessee by U.S. News & World Report, based on criteria such as teacher-student ratios and college-admission scores. Shores is proud of the academics at Soulsville and doesn’t regret the school’s choice to put math and English first. But she can’t deny “the power of this place and the power of the Stax legacy.” It was “a beautiful, isolated place where race didn’t matter. They all made music together and everyone was welcomed,” she said.

Music definitely still has a place at here. Students still learn songs in the Stax catalogue, and their guest instructors have included soul singers William Bell and Eddie Floyd, and Kirk Whalum, former chief creative officer of the foundation and a Grammy Award–winning jazz artist best known for his saxophone solo on Whitney Houston’s smash-hit version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”

High school students here can take strings, a jazz and rhythm section class and vocal music-choir. Soulsville also shares some instructors with the music academy; they work for the school in the afternoon and provide songwriting and other courses after school. In addition, the academy provides all the middle school music classes, including strings in the seventh and eighth grades.

Soulsville students who participate in the Stax Music Academy’s afterschool courses and lessons have performed at the Lincoln and Kennedy centers and around the world, said Tim Sampson, a former veteran Memphis journalist and the communications director for the Soulsville Foundation.

And there are other arts opportunities at Soulsville. Seventh-grader Jada Park is part of a theater troupe here. Students helped rewrite the classic Rapunzel story and performed the play earlier this year. In this version, the characters sported afros.

But when students head for math or English class, Stax or any other music is rarely explored. Students shift gears completely. Many students, especially in the high school grades, have to double-up on academics by taking two language arts classes.

“Oh, yes, they’re strict,” said seventh-grader Briawna Patterson. But, she added, “We are on a higher level than other schools,” noting that she sees her cousin’s homework from another school and it’s not as challenging as her work at Soulsville.

Soulsville Charter School
Students are required to write out answers in every class and subject, a practice that ramped up as the school braced for the Common Core Standards era. Credit: Alan Richard

Every high school student at Soulsville is required to take ACT prep classes, and the school recently scored an average ACT score of 19.2, the second-highest in the city, teachers said. Juniors and seniors spend one class period each day applying to colleges, writing essays, filling out financial aid forms, and getting direction on their college choices.

Brown, the school’s executive director, isn’t satisfied with the school’s current test scores. She also doesn’t keep count of how many Soulsville graduates pursue music as a college major, or seek a career in the music business, but some students certainly tend toward those paths. Brown and other educators here want students to be able to do anything they want after graduation.

“We’re in your business and don’t apologize for it,” said Meggan Kiel, the high school college counselor. “If we didn’t do this, why have this school?”

In Soulsville’s academic classes, lessons are divided into units that change direction two or three times during the same class period to keep students’ attention. A discussion can lead to an essay to a student demonstration to short-answer “exit ticket” quizzes, which help teachers track students’ progress.

In her sixth-grade science class, teacher Kalli Harrell uses a bundle of strategies to give students the confidence to answer aloud and be engaged in class discussions. Using a handout, the class discussed the Gulf Stream and other ocean currents and used blue and red markers and crayons to identify cold and warm currents around the world. Harrell asked a girl why the west Australian ocean current was cold. She struggled to answer aloud. Other students began snapping their fingers to encourage her.

It is an example of how the music occasionally trickles into even the regular academic classes. These “soul snaps,” used instead of applause, represent the yellow and red Stax Records logo with fingers snapping to the music. Students can also earn and lose “Grammy points” for good behavior and class participation.

Callaway, of the Arts Schools Network, says it’s possible, if not always easy, for schools to plan activities related to academic standards in arts classes and incorporate the arts into academic courses. It takes commitment from a principal and collaboration among teachers. Other experts point to resources for educators trying to strike that balance and build collaboration, including the new national arts education standards.

Scott Jones’s organization, The Arts Education Partnership, just released a five-year action agenda for advancing the arts in education as schools deal with new academic standards. Too many schools, especially those serving mostly low-wealth communities, can’t offer high-quality arts programs, he said.

Related: The push for standards is seeping into arts education

Soulsville tries to buck that trend, even in the age of new standards.

“We are not a music school, but we are proud of our heritage and will never not have music classes,” Brown, the executive director said. “It’ll always be part of who we are.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Common Core.

Alan Richard is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C., formerly of Education Week.

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