It’s 4:00 p.m. and at the core of Jane and Finch, classical music emanates from the hallways of Yorkwoods Public School. Students as young as eight years old can be heard playing violin and cello – a rarity in this neighbourhood where fine arts education is virtually inaccessible. However, it is becoming more accessible thanks to Sistema Toronto : an organization providing free after-school music lessons to the neighbourhood’s underprivileged youth.
You can’t just drop in and make an inspirational speech and leave. You have to be there every day.” – Christie Gray
Spearheading this program is Director Christie Gray who believes that music education leads to better opportunities for disadvantaged students.
“We are really using the music and the instruments as a tool to create social change for kids,” said Gray. Students flock around her during the program’s after school snack time. They hover over her phone, on-looking photos, and exchanging silly one-liners.
Gray works closely with students, and often witnesses crucial breakthroughs in their progress. It’s consistency that’s allowed her to connect closely with the kids.
“You can’t just drop in and make an inspirational speech and leave. You have to be there every day. You have to say ‘I believe in you and I know you can do it, and here you did do it.’ We are with the kids every day, and they get this message from the teachers all the time,” she said.
Teacher-student relationships can be precarious in priority neighbourhoods, but you wouldn’t think that as you witness kids run to their Sistema instructors, giving them high-fives before class starts. The organization depends on the volunteer commitment of these musically trained professionals, who are not regular or part-time staffers. At the Yorkwoods site, instructors dedicate two hours, four days a week to musical instruction.
Students who start out struggling to focus often change completely after a few months.” – Andres Tucci Clarke
Instructors like Andres Tucci Clarke, who teaches at Sistema’s Scarborough Centre, can attest to the benefits of working closely with the program’s youth. “Students who start out struggling to focus often change completely after a few months. Their level of focus increases, their behaviours improves, and they become emotionally comfortable with the Sistema Staff and other students,” Tucci said.
Sistema is relatively new. Founded in 2011, they were built on huge aspirations, and have the results to prove it. They have 250 children in the program to date and operate in four of Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods. One of their biggest strengths is arguably their commitment toward equal access to musical arts for underprivileged students.
Jane and Finch has been notoriously over reported, yet heinously underserved. Programming for at risk students is limited or non-existent. Students from low-income families with parents who lack post-secondary education, are at risk of missing out on opportunities only available in high-income areas. And if you are a black student, there are even greater barriers to accessing high arts education.
A study conducted by the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (OISE) in 2017 found that 67 per cent of students who entered grade nine in specialized arts programs run by TDSB were white. Additionally, arts students are twice as likely to come from wealthy families.
Schools like Yorkwoods Public School point to Toronto’s income discrepancies. Rusting gates surrounds the school entrance where there is no fancy landscaping, and classrooms have seen better days.
Toronto is a city full of contradictions: admirable highs and devastating lows. It is a city of culture, wonder, and progression. It’s also a city conflicted with low income and scarce public resources. There is wealth and poverty, and it’s not often that we see this contrast. Often times, our only references are in swelling city centres where homelessness has almost immunized us.
The school, which stands at the heart of Jane and Finch, reminds us that there are discrepancies to access. The 2016 census showed that one in four children were living in poverty. At Yorkwoods Public School, 57 per cent of students come from lower-income neighbourhoods.
Students are elated by opportunities to be taught the violin and other instruments. It’s the belief that they are worth the time that makes all the difference. Holding them to high standards, and expecting them to excel is rare, and crucial to harnessing self-belief in these youth.
Even though Sistema is an independent charity, they work with members of Ontario school boards to embed curriculum standards into their afterschool programs.
“Each centre has a centre director who is involved on a regular basis in curriculum development. We also work with external members, such as people who work in the education system to get more ideas. For our choir curriculum we have been talking a lot to the Toronto Children’s chorus, and they help us with what is appropriate levelling and expectations for kids this age,” said Gray.
Toronto schools are overcrowded and resources are stretched. While Sistema focuses on collaborative learning, students can receive more individualized attention due to low student-to-teacher ratio. Classes can have as few as eight to ten students per instructor, and range as high as twelve or fifteen students maximum.
The idea behind Sistema is simple, yet profound, as Gray explains: “We are using the music and the instruments as a tool to create social change for kids. It’s fostering the ability to practice and learn through repetition,” she said.
When asked about her hopes, the teary-eyed Gray swells with conviction:
“My goal is to reach more and more kids. We want to create a youth leadership program that will continue to support this relationship as our students go on to high school. We want to foster excellence in academics, arts performance, and see them become amazing, inspiring people,” she said.
Sistema Toronto holds a Red Violin gala each year where people can support the program through purchasing a ticket, as well as through donations.
How to get involved: Are you part of a local band? Great! If you choose to hold a local concert, you can donate a portion of the funto one of Sistema's programs. The organization benefits largely through word-of-mouth, so help spread the world. Volunteers are welcome. For more information, visit http://sistema-toronto.ca/contact.