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By Matthew Franck

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 12/11/2000

Kindergartner Matthew Simmons is at the threshold of a room unlike any other in a St. Louis school, and his enthusiasm is spilling over.

He is peering into what is reverentially known at Holy Trinity Catholic School as the The Violin Studio. Often, the distant strains of the instructor's violin have summoned him here -- through the schoolhouse door, up a steep challenge of stairs, and down a hall leading to the studio.

"Is today violin?" he asks, but it is more of a declaration than a question. Already, he is celebrating the answer.

He enters only when joined by his classmates, and then only when violinist Celina

Boldrey says so.

At Boldrey's command, the children gather in a circle at their assigned stations. Against a wall are 40 violins, each one with a white tag bearing a child's name.

But to touch the instruments, or even approach their cases, the children must follow every rule and contain most every wiggle.

Here, music is not a vehicle to stardom or a pastime of the privileged.

It is discipline. It is work. And it may hold the future of the struggling and impoverished inner-city Catholic school.

In an effort unrivaled in St. Louis, Holy Trinity has spent the past two years and about $85,000 of philanthropy assembling what may be the most comprehensive music and arts program of any elementary school in the region.

The tiny school of about 110 children employs not only a part-time violinist, but a vocalist, a visual artist and a ballroom dancer. Percussionists and dancers visit the school regularly.

The experimental project is modeled after one that has shown signs of revitalizing 10 public and private schools in New York City. In each case, the schools have banked on a belief that music and arts will enhance, rather than compete, with academic excellence.

It is an idea that swims against a tide that has swept arts from many schools, amid budget cuts and a focus on standardized test results.

"I think we are on the cutting edge of education, " said Sister Janet McCann, Holy Trinity's principal.

At Holy Trinity, that innovation is targeted at children who face the greatest needs of any in the city. The school, at 1435 Mallinckrodt Street near Hyde Park, sits in the middle of an area recognized as one of the St. Louis' worst environments for children.

The 1997 report Project Respond and Vision for Children listed the school's 63107 ZIP code as having the highest combination of crime, child hood health problems and poverty of any ZIP code in the city.

The school's 1918 building - together with the towering church next door - seem like the only fully assembled structures in the ragged, broken-paned neighborhood. Inside the school, more than 85 percent of the pupils are believed to come from poverty.

Were it not for the arts and music program, it is likely that some of the children would have never come into direct contact with a single artisan or performer, much less develop talents themselves.

"How many of these children's parents could afford $50-an-hour private Suzuki music sessions?" asks Katherine Damkohler, whose national Education Through Music organization inspired Holy Trinity's project. She was referring to Shinichi Suzuki, who believed hearing and playing music early would help children love music and become abler adults.

The school's children appear to recognize the scarcity of that opportunity.

Parents say their children never talk as much about school as they do on days when there is violin: "They are excited to come, " said Tamy Cotton, who has three children at the school.

For weeks this fall, children gathered in the violin studio for lessons even before the school could afford to purchase instruments. So Boldrey stuck to the basics.

She taught them to stand straight, to bow, to keep rhythm. When that wasn't enough, she rounded up 40 rice boxes and paint stirrers and fashioned them into dummy violins, covered in a woodgrain adhesive paper.

The children were required to respect the cheap imitations, to regard them as valuable.

So when a $7,300 bounty of violins, ranging from 1/32 to 1/2 size, arrived, there was a solemnity to the moment.

McCann recalls how carefully students kneeled in front of their own violins and slowly unzipped the cases.

At first there was a hush. And then, unexpectedly, McCann saw Matthew Simmons, who held his treasure as delicately as he would a fallen bird, lean over and kiss the violin.

It was a scene that Holy Trinity had spent months attempting to stage.

The effort began in 1998, when the Archdiocese of St. Louis matched 15 of its schools with the business community. The aim of the so-called Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute was to help make the schools more efficient, to improve their marketing and - it's hoped - shower them with financial support.

The schools were introduced to different school reform proposals, including Education Through Music.

The music and arts program has its roots in a small Catholic school in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Like Holy Trinity, the school had seen enrollment fall over recent decades.

Damkohler, who was principal at the time, responded with a massive expansion of arts and music. Within three years, enrollment had doubled and the school was named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

Since then, 10 schools have followed suit. Damkohler said early results at most also show higher test scores and attendance.

The schools not only install music and arts, but most have retooled their administrations and attempted to overhaul programs such as math and science.

The focus is not on creating a magnet school to attract talented children from more affluent areas. Nor is it on transforming inner-city children into maestros.

"We don't throw a violin at them and expect them to be the next Isaac Stern, " Damkohler said. "That is not what this is about."

Holy Trinity doesn't merely pick the children who seem interested in violin. It makes everyone learn to play, as everyone must master multiplication tables.

But the approach isn't cheap.

Holy Trinity has added all of its arts and music programs without touching tuition. Private grants and contributions have raised $85,000, much of that coming from the St. Anselm Catholic Church, a partner parish in west St. Louis County.

Still, the school needs at least $50,000 more to keep the arts afloat through the next school year.

Last month, Holy Trinity's violin pupils were recruited into the fund-raising effort.

In an evening performance at the church, the children lined up in front of an audience of potential donors and parents to display their talent.

They showed how they learned to bow. They recited a poem. And three times, after Boldrey played the introduction to the tune "Pop Goes the Weasel, " they plucked out the punch line.

Damkohler then used the church to deliver a sermon on the arts. She promised that if the money kept flowing, music and the arts would produce higher test scores in all subject areas.

Her sales pitch was unusual for Catholic schools, which typically do not offer to share performance figures.

"What I want to see is this school flourishing, " Damkohler said. "I want to see 500 students here."

Sister Joyelle Proot, who helps run the school, has more ambitious plans. She imagines a program so successful that dozens of nearby public and private schools will rush to clone it, creating a virtual arts renaissance in St. Louis schools.

For now, however, her energies are on Matthew Simmons and more than 100 other children who have just met the violin, the arts and the doors they may open.

"This is about doing this for generations, " Proot said. "It has to go on. Otherwise, it doesn't have the power to make a difference."

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