Grades soar when church starts school music program
By Lindsay Peyton
There’s music in the halls after school at Blackshear Elementary in Houston’s Third Ward, thanks to a partnership with nearby Boynton Chapel UMC. The church’s new program began a week after school started and is demonstrating that learning an instrument translates to higher test scores and better behavior in the classroom. Pastor Linda Davis explained this is just the beginning.
The music ministry at Boynton Chapel UMC lay dormant since COVID hit. Davis started the academy not long after being appointed to the church, in response to children asking to come inside the building.
One day, neighborhood youth were at the church, while Davis was in her office. A high schooler began playing the piano in the sanctuary and took the pastor’s breath away. When she asked who had taught him to play, he responded, “YouTube.”
At that moment, Davis felt called to start a music academy, where in-person instructors could help neighborhood children. She wrote a grant and then hired Lloyd Hughes, a retired HISD music teacher from Parker Elementary.
The young man who inspired her later received a four-year music scholarship to Talladega College and will graduate in May. In the meantime, Boynton Chapel helped a number of scholars follow in his footsteps, learning music.
When the pandemic shut the program down, Davis began brainstorming what to do next. Finances were no longer available, she explained. “I knew I needed to get this music program going, but how?” she wondered.
The group Ordinary Women of St. Paul’s UMC, Houston came to her aid. “They asked me about my vision,” Davis recalled.
She shared the story of the music academy, and they agreed to help. Women from other UMCs also joined the effort.
The first order of business was finding instruments. “We had some guitars, a keyboard and drums, but that was it,” Davis said. “Now we have every instrument you can imagine – saxophone, clarinet, flute, tuba, trumpet, drums, recorders and violins.”
A music shop offered to repair instruments at little to no cost. Davis was prepared to start the program again at church, but then she made a discovery that changed her mind.
Davis learned that nearby Blackshear Elementary did not have any after-school activities planned because of funding constraints. Principal Alicia Gobert Lewis worried about parents, many of whom worked until 5 p.m. and would struggle to pick up their children.
Davis proposed moving the music program to the school campus, and Lewis gave the pastor a list of parents who were in need of after-school care.
Davis called every single one. When she told parents about the program, many were relieved and excited to have the option.
Davis recalled one mother who started crying at the beginning of the call. She was being forced to choose between picking her child up after school or losing her job. “There were other parents saying the same thing,” Davis explained.
When the music program started in the fall, 10 children enrolled. Now, there are about 35 – and there is a waiting list.
Participants, called “scholars,” are enrolled in grades pre-kindergarten through fifth. They meet Monday through Friday for music lessons and homework help provided by the church. HISD also supplies snacks.
There are two music teachers, including Hughes, and a total staff of five from the church. Pastoral intern Elaine Miller serves as the administrator.
“It’s been very rewarding – to know you’re helping a parent and keeping their child safe,” Davis said.
In a video message, Principal Lewis expressed her gratitude. “I have dreamed of having a productive after-school program here at Blackshear since I’ve been here and this is my seventh year,” she said.
When Pastor Davis called with the idea, the principal was elated – and she marvels at the early success of the program. “Our scholars, seeing them everyday work with the members of Boynton UMC, tutoring, music, social and emotional support, it’s everything that I ever prayed for,” Lewis continued.
Grants and private donations helped launch the music ministry, but further contributions are needed to help it continue and expand, Davis explained. She is currently focused on applying for more grants.
Principal Lewis has shared preliminary data with Davis. Already, about 44 percent of scholars in the church’s program have 10 percent or higher reading growth, improving up to 43 percent.
In addition, 59 percent of the scholars showed a 10 percent or higher improvement in math, increasing up to 49 percent.
“When I read the data, I was totally floored,” Davis said. “This is unbelievable. There’s a correlation between students who learn instrumental music and testing scores.”
There is also anecdotal evidence of better conduct in the classroom and good citizenship from the scholars, the pastor added.
“When someone learns music, they develop attention, listening, team skills and the discipline needed to practice,” Davis said. “That plays into their cognitive capacity, motivation to learn and self-efficacy.”
The arts program Young Audiences and Houston Texans YMCA are now partnering with the Boynton Chapel offering, and other schools in the city are asking to be included. The Y will also host a session of the music program during spring break.
Davis hopes to bring the after-school program where it is needed. She is also considering starting a separate 501c3 nonprofit.
Supporting the community simply makes sense to the pastor. “I am a community and social justice activist in my heart,” she said. “My goal and desire is to work with, not just for, those who are marginalized.”
In Third Ward, the children need help and guidance, Davis continued. “I know that I am called to help, and the church is called beyond its walls,” she said.
Boynton Chapel celebrates 142 years in ministry. The church has hosted a food pantry for two decades. The congregation hosts a dental clinic in the spring and offers back-to-school clothing each fall.
Every month, the church hosts a monthly COVID vaccine clinic. One day, Davis hopes the congregation will be able to provide affordable housing to those in need.
The motto of Boynton Chapel is “I’m blessed to be a blessing to you.”
“We really hold onto that,” Davis said. “We want to bless the community and bless each other. We are the hands and feet of Jesus Christ – and we are truly a boots-on-the-ground ministry.”