FeatureJanuary 20, 2011 at 1:15 am

School of Hard Rock

Take a peek behind the scenes at Rock to the Future, the Fishtown afterschool program that lets kids work and play in the name of rock and roll.

Ten–year–old Machaela sits at a cafeteria table in the basement of the Atonement Lutheran Church, struggling through a worksheet to help her practice finding least common multiples. Above her hang framed Twelve Step slogans, indications of the church’s nightly role as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting place. One intricate calligraph reads “First Things First,” a fitting motto for the room’s current occupants, who must finish their homework before beginning the more exciting part of their afternoon. For Machaela, and the 14 other students who come to the church every weekday after school, homework is a necessary evil — a requisite to be completed before they can do what they really love: rocking out.

Max Hass | 34th Street

At Rock to the Future, an afterschool program in Fishtown that cleverly combines musical instruction with academic support, students learn to play the rock instrument of their choosing in small group lessons. Offering tutelage in guitar, bass, drums and keyboards, Rock to the Future groups participants into bands of five, where the students, equipped with only elementary knowledge of their instruments, must cooperate to both write original songs and successfully cover a few classics. Each semester culminates in a showcase performance in which the children — some of whom, according to Director Jessica McKay, have been written off as lost causes by their teachers and principals — can show an audience of over 100 what they have achieved.

With the next showcase slated for June 5th, the students have months before the stress of performing begins to weigh on them. For now, attention must be paid to a more pressing matter: the students’ continued academic improvement.

A little over a year ago, McKay began to envision a program that could address the educational needs of Fishtown’s youth while providing an engaging environment for children both to socialize and develop a musical skill. Though she graduated from Temple with a degree in Business Administration and Economics, McKay, who began her career as a performer with violin lessons in 3rd grade, has always had a true passion for music. After years of playing drums in local bands and volunteering as a mentor and music instructor, she began to dream of Rock to the Future. “I thought, ‘I’d really love to open an after-school program,’” recalls McKay. “‘It would be really great to offer that to low–income students.’” On a whim, she drafted a proposal for the Women for Social Innovation’s prestigious Turning Point Prize, awarded each year to an “emerging social innovator” who develops an entrepreneurial plan to address a problem plaguing women, children or families. She never thought she’d be picked to receive $15,000 of seed money to start her program, but she was.

After working a rigid 9–to–5 job for three years, Jessica McKay left the investment firm Janney Montgomery Scott in March to begin preparations for Rock to the Future, choosing facilities with the help of the North Kensington Community Development Corporation, contracting with corporate sponsors and developing a curriculum, all within a span of six months. A Fishtown resident herself, and a native Philadelphian, she is profoundly aware of the struggles that her students face and worked ardently to structure a program that could help tackle the adverse effects of social inequality on low–income children’s educational experience.

For the families of Fishtown who can’t afford pricey extracurricular programs and private tutoring, there aren’t many opportunities for parents to help their children cultivate musical talents or give them educational leg–ups. In the public school system, kids too frequently get left behind. As McKay explains, “[In public schools] they don’t make sure the students master everything; they just keep moving forward. But when they come here, we make sure we know they learn what they need to know.” With individualized one–on–one homework help, McKay and her team of volunteers can pinpoint each student’s roadblocks, taking as much time as necessary to explain tricky concepts or address problem areas. For students with persisting issues, the public school system simply does not possess the resources to offer such aid free of charge.

Kids like Samira, a 5th grade student at Adaire Alexander School, “fall through the cracks,” in the words of her mother Cathy. Samira, who is undergoing vision therapy to correct an eye–teaming problem, has trouble in both reading and math due to the comprehension delay that her minor disability causes. However, since her condition does not qualify her for special education, she doesn’t get the attention she needs in the classroom. When it became apparent that the school administration was failing to recognize the gravity of the situation, Jessica scheduled a meeting with Samira’s principal to strategize ways in which the school can accommodate her.

The meeting, according to McKay, was a last resort. “I don’t want to get too involved with the conflicts they have with their school,” she explains. “But anyway I can, I want to help them succeed.” And Jessica’s efforts have already begun to pay off. Many children have already seen improvements in their test scores as a result of the extra homework help that McKay and her colleagues provide them; even those who were once apathetic about their schoolwork are eager to earn Jessica’s praise and demonstrate their accomplishments to her. “The kids are so excited,” she reports. “They come in and show me the 100s or As they get on their tests.” Though she’s quick to step into her role as a disciplinarian, challenging a participant when he invokes a negative stereotype or chiding a student for his failure to respect another musician’s property, Jessica is not merely a mentor, but a true inspiration and ally to her students … oftentimes one of the few they have.

For some of the program’s participants, the main obstacle to completing homework is distraction. “When I’m home my friends will come over and I won’t do my homework,” explains Erica, a fourteen–year–old learning guitar at Rock to the Future. But the problem goes beyond the allure of the many readily available diversions, like videogames, TV and text messaging, that children of the Net Generation tend to prefer over homework . Many students in Fishtown have parents who have to work late in order to make ends meet and thus cannot monitor their children’s afterschool activities.

As Stefanie, whose daughter Emily is a keyboardist in the program, describes, “Programs like this keep the kids from running the streets and getting into trouble.” Before joining the program, Ben, a student who, according to McKay, “never did homework last year,” would aimlessly wander through the neighborhood until his parents got home. Rock to the Future, however, has a strict attendance policy. “If they want to be part of the program,” Jessica declares emphatically, “they have to be here.” And surprisingly, the chance to get to play an instrument for a few hours is an enticing enough incentive to trudge through even the most arduous of assignments, something McKay discovered through her own experience as a member of the drumline at Upper Darby High School. “Growing up is hard. Music helped keep me focused in school,” she claims.

In the band room, the students exhibit a level of concentration and enthusiasm unseen during homework hours. Machaela, who only an hour ago could barely sit still long enough to complete her worksheet, has no trouble counting off her band or keeping a steady rhythm on the drums while she belts out lyrics she helped write. The program gives its participants the tools they need to truly express themselves through music. Each instrument lesson is peppered with a hearty dose of music theory, which volunteers try to balance with more enjoyable activities. Learning theory not only stimulates cognitive function, it gives the students the foundations they need to compose their own songs; writing chord progressions and melodies allow the children to feel empowered and accomplished in giving voice to their emotions. Erica, who gets frustrated when her parents argue, proudly states, “I can release my anger. If I’m mad, I can go home and play music.”

Working together as a band, however, requires cooperation and compromise. When asked to identify the greatest benefit the children gain from participating in the program, Jessica points to the team–building skills that collaboration teaches them. “They have to learn that they’re not always right. In a band, everyone gets a chance to say something.” Timothy, a 7th grader who plays bass, admits that the experience has been humbling. “Now I can play my instrument and not want to brag about it.”

While the experience of learning to play an instrument in a group setting can help check an inflated ego, it can also build confidence in those who have a hard time breaking out of their shell. McKay explains that last semester, Samira was too shy to even introduce herself to other participants. Her mother recalls that she initially cowered from male instructors. Today, Samira is still quiet and reserved, but as she works alongside volunteer Justin Baldwin and Assistant Director Mike Bobak, she seems at ease, even smiling occasionally as she banters with her bandmates.

The powerful transformative experience of Rock to the Future is one that McKay wants to offer to a new generation of participants; she plans to continue the currents’ education next year, while admitting eight to ten more students at the beginner level. Jessica hopes that she can continue to grow the program’s geographical accessibility, dreaming of opening locations in the West, South and Northeast neighborhoods of Philadelphia.

For now, though, Jessica just wants to make sure the program is still operating next September. As with all non–profit organizations, securing funding in the early stages of development has proven a challenge. Due to the recession, many charitable trusts have been frozen to new applicants, continuing to fund current projects but refusing to undertake new endeavors until the economy recovers. Furthermore, because Rock to the Future has not yet received 501(c)3 status through the Internal Revenue Service, the program is not eligible for many grants and public funding allocations. The IRS application process is difficult, and it often takes several years for an organization to get official recognition. Until then, McKay will continue to rely on benefit shows and corporate sponsorship for fundraising.

So far, she’s booked Danger Danger Gallery for April 6th, and hopes to pique interest in charitable work among the members of Philadelphia’s local rock scenes. “[Playing a benefit show] makes them realize they can do something besides playing at a bar to make fifty bucks. They can play and support music,” urges Jessica. McKay makes concerted efforts to bring in local musicians for guest performances and workshops. On January 13, Your So Called Friends, a four–piece based in New York City, stopped by to play a fifteen–minute set, answer questions from students and engage in an impromptu jam on the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” a song the kids performed at their winter showcase.

As Machaela croons the opening lines with all the majesty of a seasoned performer, the potency of Rock to the Future is instantly made clear. Here, far from the underfunded classrooms where they disappear in the seas of foundering students, sheltered from the perils of the city streets and supported by a team of volunteers dedicated to the cause, these kids are given the rare chance to truly shine. 

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