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SMU students bring orchestra back to South Dallas schools

First-year Rachel Gan teaches a student how to play the cello. Photo credit: Sue Han
First-year Rachel Gan teaches a student how to play the cello. Photo credit: Sue Han

By Sue Han

First-year Rachel Gan teaches a student how to play the cello. Photo credit: Sue Han

On a late Monday afternoon, the hallways of Dunbar Elementary school are completely empty except for one classroom: the music hall filled with 13 fourth-graders who are learning the basics of music theory from SMU senior Sarah Israel.

They are a part of South Dallas Strings, which is an after-school orchestra program run by SMU students that meets three times a week.

“This is their orchestra is what we really try and hit home. This is for you. We are not doing this for us as an SMU community. This is your South Dallas Strings Orchestra,” Israel said.

Israel never intended on teaching the students, but now is at the school three times a week to provide stability and a face that students see every day. She founded South Dallas Strings off of Bridge the Gap Chamber Players, a group at SMU that brings chamber music into the community.

When she took over as executive director, she wanted to bring in the educational component that it was missing. Thus began a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club Center for New Generation (CNG) to bring orchestra programs back into schools where it had disappeared. South Dallas Strings was also made possible by borrowing unused instruments from middle schools and receiving help from SMU music students.

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Sarah Israel teaching students music theory. Photo credit: Sue Han

Deon Foreman, a kindergarten teacher at Dunbar who is a part of Boys and Girls Club CNG, was eager to volunteer to supervise the program.

“Being there and knowing what they are getting, our hopes are that they grab hold to it and know this is something that they can have for life,” Foreman said. “That this can take them far beyond what they can dream of.”

Studies show that students who do not have something to engage in fifth and sixth grade are the ones who are more likely to drop out of school. Israel hopes that South Dallas Strings will help fill in this gap and that the students will able to continue playing in orchestra through middle school.

Additionally, students have been gaining social behavior skills, building self-confidence and learning to think critically on their own. Together, they have been increasing accountability and teamwork.

“These kids are the future, just as the Highland Park kids are the future, and it’s really sad to me that no one is taking notice of them as they need to,” Israel said.

Israel is graduating in December and the program will need to hire a music educator for January. South Dallas Strings is raising money to continue the program.

“If we leave now, then I’m afraid that we will do more harm than good,” Israel said.

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