SOUTH TAMPA At lunchtime every day at Mitchell Elementary School, violin music plays over the chatter and clamor of the packed cafeteria. The strings classes are held in a storage closet-turned-classroom off the back end of the lunchroom, which also serves as the auditorium. Young musicians leave their violin cases outside the door of the small room, then pack in and take their positions at the music stands. They play along with the teacher’s piano, sometimes singing the notes aloud as they read the music. At the end of class, after taking a bow, they line up at Todd Jefferis’ seat so he can tie a colored string to their violins. Each string symbolizes a song they have perfected. Nine-year-old Abby Larkin, who Jefferis calls one of his “superstars,” has 23 strings.
“It’s fun,” she said, looking up from her sheet music. “We learn new things.” Mitchell is one of two non-magnet elementary schools in the district that still has a strings program. Like many other school districts across the country, the Hillsborough district four years ago cut funding for elementary strings programs. But rather than watch the violin classes dissolve, parents at Mitchell and Gorrie elementary schools rallied. They formed the Heart Strings program, which now funds the classes and helps pay Jefferis’ salary. “We feel fortunate that we’re able to hold onto this,” said Julie Pellecchia, a member of the Heart Strings committee at Mitchell. Heart Strings is a registered non-profit that is funded by the Gorrie Foundation and the Mitchell Foundation. The two groups split the $68,000 annual cost of the program. And after four years of paying for it themselves, the groups still are trying to come up with new ways to raise the money. At Mitchell, parents are “kindly asked” to pay a $200 fee and to buy the violin their child uses. That’s a big request at a school where about 29 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch, and only 30 to 40 percent of them can pay for the classes, Pellechia said. But any student who wants to take the class can, Pellecchia said, so the Mitchell Foundation has fundraisers and seeks donations and sponsorships to help offset the costs. “We’re just scraping by,” she said. At Gorrie, the school’s foundation up to this point has been able to pay most of costs associated with the program, but increasingly has asked parents to contribute directly, said foundation president John Hotchkiss. “It’s a really neat program, especially to see year over year how the kids progress,” he said. All kindergarteners take the music class, and it is an elective for students from first through fifth grades. Jefferis travels between the two schools every day to teach a total of about 600 students. “I would love to see the county realize that the parents stepped up and did this,” he said. “This is viable. It’s thriving, it’s surviving.” Jefferis’ day starts at 7 a.m. and ends around 3:40 p.m., he said. The fourth- and fifth-graders take his class before and after school, and the other grades during take it during the day. “It’s great to be able to make music with the kids all day long,” he said. The classes take field trips and put on performances throughout the community, at the state fair and PTA meetings. The groups at each school currently are preparing for end-of-the-year concerts. “The kids absolutely love Dr. Jefferis and he’s very good at what he does,” Hotchkiss said. “He’s so on their level.” One of Hotchkiss’ daughters is in the program, and another participated for two years, he said. Pellechia’s daughter also is in the program, and her son continues to take strings classes as a sixth-grader at Wilson Middle School. “Since they get it (music classes) at school, it’s easier on me,” Pellecchia said. “And they’re with their friends.” The elementary classes are a huge benefit for the students who continue to play in middle school and high school, Pellechia said. The groups hope that one day the district will be able to restore funding for elementary strings programs. Clearly, she said, the students enjoy it and the parents are involved. “We want to save our strings program,” she said. To find out more or to help, go to www.mitchellelementaryfoundation.org or www.gorriefoundation.org.