The kindergarten students on stage for the spring concert at PS 91 in the Bronx are fidgeting and waving to family members in the audience. But once music teacher Khristine Raymond stands before them and the piano accompanist starts to play, all eyes are on Raymond.
She guides them through “This Little Light of Mine,” the song they have rehearsed for weeks. Following Raymond’s lead, her students cup their hands as if to shield a small flame and then make a big arc with their arms when they sing the next line, “I’m gonna let it shine.”
Kyle Quirion, the school’s other music teacher, was watching the children as they performed. “They were all smiling,” he notes.
Music is lifting up students at the K–5 school in University Heights — not just emotionally but academically, too.
“It’s phenomenal,” says PS 91 Chapter Leader Tracey Eliason. “Their behavior is better, and their academics are better. And now parents are more involved.”
The school’s strong music program was created by Principal Meridith Nasjletti, who took the reins in 2010. Nasjletti had a singing career before going into education — she toured with Vanessa Williams and Luther Vandross — and was determined to give every student “a music experience.”
Every PS 91 student takes music once a week. Students who want to perform more often can join the Select Choir or the after-school orchestra program.
The school offers two concerts a year, one in the fall and one in the spring, in which every student participates. Each concert is held over two days to accommodate all the grades. A pianist is brought in to accompany the students.
For the spring concert this May, Raymond and Quirion organized the grades as different “radio stations”: kindergarten offered inspirational music, 1st-graders delivered soul classics such as “Love Train,” and 2nd-graders sang “Beyond the Sea” and other jazz standards and even got in some scatting.
Principal Nasjletti says the turning point came when she hired Raymond and Quirion in 2015, and the data supports her: School attendance has surged. According to the Department of Education’s School Quality Report, PS 91 has seen a 10 point increase in the percentage of students with a more than 90 percent attendance rate between 2014 and 2017.
Nasjletti says the music concerts have bolstered parent engagement as well. “The parents want to see their kids perform,” she says.
The Title I school has a largely Hispanic population. Of the 727 students, 26 percent have disabilities and 36 percent are learning English as a new language.
The expanded music program was made possible by PS 91’s partnership with the nonprofit Education through Music, which shared the expense of hiring Raymond and Quirion, covers the cost of the pianist for concerts and donated musical instruments, including the school’s baby grand piano. The organization also funded the renovation of the school auditorium. Last year, singer Josh Groban and violinist Joshua Bell visited the school and performed with students.
The PS 91 Select Choir, composed of 4th- and 5th-graders, sang at the Education through Music gala and was serenaded with “Over the Rainbow” by opera singer Renee Fleming, who was a star performer at the gala.
Quirion says she and Raymond teach the students using the traditional Orff Schulwerk method, which combines music, movement, speech and drama.
The teachers say they like the approach because it can be modified to suit particular students’ needs. For example, a student may have a hard time memorizing notes but can remember a sentence or string of words that carry the rhythm. “It helps them feel the rhythm because it’s something tangible,” says Quirion.
Raymond knows she has to work at getting students over their fear of trying something new.
“It can be scary if you don’t break things down to the smallest step,” she says. “The kindergarten students mimic my motions. I use a lot of hand gestures in class, which makes the transition to performance easier for them.’
Annie Rodriguez, the dean of school culture, hopes to expand the school’s arts programming. She is writing a grant for a theater program at PS 91.
“A big part of it is to create a joy for learning,” Rodriguez says. “The arts give our kids a place to be recognized and successful.”