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Charter School Principal Uses Music to Help Students Learn

 Franklin Headley, the principal at VOICE Charter School in Queens.
Franklin Headley, the principal at VOICE Charter School in Queens.
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DNAinfo/Jeanmarie Evelly

LONG ISLAND CITY — At VOICE Charter School in Queens, music plays an integral role in learning.

The school serves just fewer than 600 students in kindergarten through seventh grade, and everyone participates in choral singing, with children beginning to read music as early as the second grade.

"We think the arts really matter, that they can have an impact on the core academic subjects, but that they also are rich in themselves, they make life rich," said principal Franklin Headley, 48.

He first saw the impact that music can have when working as an assistant principal at another school in Jamaica, where he was looking for ways to better teach the English Language Learners.

"They brought resident musicians and artists to the school, and we saw that the kids did better academically — the scores went up," Headley said. "And they didn’t go up through test prep. It went up in a very joyful, authentic way."

DNAinfo New York spoke with Headley recently about VOICE Charter School and his role there.

Have you always wanted to be an educator?
I studied history in college, and then I did some different work, but then I entered a PhD program at Columbia University and I taught there. I taught their great books course — like Aristotle and Plato — and I found myself becoming more interested in teaching, and less in this sort of esoteric research topics I was doing.

There was a program called the New York City Teaching Fellows that was starting. This was in the year 2000, and I was very surprised that when I read about it, my heart kind of leapt. I thought, wow, this means I could teach kids. It was kind of the road not taken. My college didn't have an education major, so it wasn't really an option for me once I got to college. So this was like a new pathway.

Talk about the role that music plays here at VOICE, and how that’s incorporated into the day to day activities at the school?
We want the children to become strong musicians by the time they graduate. That doesn't mean that we want them to necessarily become professionals, but we want them to get really good at something.

Part of this is, there's something really special about singing in a choir where you have to listen to each other, and it becomes sort of a metaphor for the school. So even though they're not really singing in math class, there are things that they learn as a community, in having to come together to produce great music, that translates to the other subjects, but also just to their own lives... Most importantly, they see that it's possible to get really good at something that's hard.

Does every student take some kind of music instruction?
They all take the same subjects. Middle school is a little different, but in elementary school they all have music. They're all in the same class, we don’t separate them out. The emphasis is on vocal singing, so it's all in a choir [where] they learn musical skills.

Our children by second grade can begin to read standard notation —sight-read — which most singers don't do until college.

Do you have any personal goals for yourself as an educator?
I'm a caretaker and a manager of change here. Because, you know, we were a startup and we’ve grown gradually, there are always new things to build... I want to make sure that what we build is both addressing those new needs we've identified, but also doesn't disrupt the stuff that we’ve gotten good at.