Retention ideas?

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    Hello all,

    This is my first year in a rural K-12 school (4th yr. teaching) and I am coming up against some challenges in terms of keeping students in the band program. It seems over the past number of years, under the previous director, very few students have chosen to stay in the band program after elementary school. For example, I currently have 12 students doing beginning band in 4th grade, 12 students in a combined 5th/6th grade band, and only 8 in a combined MS/HS band. My numbers for the beginners are keeping me optimistic, but there seems to be a precedent of students dropping out once they’ve done it for the first few years. I overheard some 6th graders talking about dropping out next year, in part because they want to do chorus. Though, that shouldn’t be an issue because we do allow students to be in both and alternate every other day. I feel like it’s particularly challenging in a K-12 school because there’s not much new from one year to the next for students to look forward to. Also, there is no elementary chorus, so I think some students just choose to do band in elementary while they are waiting to be able to do chorus in MS.

    I feel like I need to come up with some really special opportunities or rewards for the MS/HS band, and even 5th/6th graders, in order to keep kids looking forward to the following year and prevent them from dropping out. For example, although the motivation behind it is not ideal, when I was a student in middle school lots of students stayed in the band in order to go on the big 8th grade band trip where we’d do a music in the parks type festival.

    Does anyone have experience in turning a program around in terms of bringing numbers up or keeping kids enrolled? What are some ways that I might “spice up” the program? If I’m going to look at doing a trip, any suggestions for fundraising or tour companies? Our school has very little available in our budget…

    Thanks for your help!



    Retention in a small rural school can be very challenging! I’m in my 9th year teaching 5-8 band in an upstate NY district of about 850. I started with 34 6th-8th graders and only 8 5th graders, and now I have at least 20 students in each grade (40 in the 4th grade!) It took about 5 years, but this year we actually had to split my middle school band into 2 groups because they wouldn’t all fit in my room! Here is how we did it:

    1) You NEED an administration that is willing to do what is necessary to give the program a chance at success. As soon as I had that, we were able to create a schedule that allowed the kids to be in band without it seeming punitive (e.g. missing recess or a study hall). You also need that support for lessons if you have a pullout system like I do. You should never have to say ‘If you take band, then you can’t do _____.’

    2) Never stop recruiting. I will start kids in any grade as long as they are willing to put the work in to catch up. Pop into the cafeteria and see who your band kids are sitting with. Positive peer pressure is very effective! It doesn’t always work out, but that’s the reason I have a bassoon player this year.

    3) Give students ownership of the program. We elect representatives from each grade to help make decisions about any trips or events. It makes them feel like they have a stake in what happens. The only trip we take is to play the National Anthem at a minor league hockey game and hour away, but it’s a big deal to them. I know some kids join just for that, but that’s not why they stay! Find little ways to keeping them involved in decisions. I allow students to vote for a pop song we play on the spring concert. They get so excited about it that they end up researching and listening to just as much band music on JW Pepper as I do.

    4) Make the music room a safe place, especially in middle school. So many of my students are just looking for a place where they belong and where it’s okay to make mistakes. Try to provide that environment for every student (and for yourself!), and they will be drawn into the program. Be kind and consistent in your expectations.

    5) Be excited about what you do and that energy will create a thriving program. Learning should be fun, regardless of the subject matter, and I think music teachers have it easier here than some others. I expect that my students will have fun in my class while they are working hard to improve, because I am having fun while I’m working hard to teach them. It is rare that I have a rehearsal that doesn’t involve laughing.

    I could go on all day about this, but it’s one part hard work, one part cooperation and some luck sprinkled in for good measure. And it takes time. The work I’ve done in the younger grades is just now starting to trickle into the high school.

    I hope this helps and you have a giant program in a few years!

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