Focusing on Tomorrow: Principal Celeste Douglas Wheeler on the Power of Count Me In
The Weill Music Institute is currently inviting middle schools students in Queens, Manhattan, Bronx, and Brooklyn to be a part of our Count Me In singing workshops this coming fall. These workshops offer the basics of how to sing in a choir and prepare for an audition. The workshops are aimed at middle school students in schools without a choral program. The Count Me In program prepares students for the audition process at performing arts high schools and community-based choirs.
We recently sat down with Celeste Douglas Wheeler, principal of MS 57 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and one of our main program partners, to talk about her Count Me In experience.
What was your initial reaction to arts programming and Count Me In?
My initial response was that there are so many other things placed in a principal’s hands that I wasn’t too sure if I was ready to commit to Count Me In or any type of arts programming. At my school the major issues are reading, writing, and mathematics and I didn’t understand the connection. How would bringing in more arts help my students? I felt this pressure from inside that my students needed something more, but was unsure if this would be the best fit.
Now that you’ve been through the program, how has that impression changed?
It’s been a remarkable experience for me and my students. Students who were so shy, students who I never heard speak, watching them sing in different languages and watching the parents’ reactions just astounded me. So many students in Bedford-Stuyvesant are given a label—you’re a strong reader, you’re a strong writer, you’re a strong mathematician—or you’re not. And if you’re not, you don’t fit into school and you’re seen like something’s wrong with you. With Count Me In, I see students who shine in an area where I didn’t expect them to shine. What’s really been amazing to me is the fact that the whole school community has made them celebrities—these are our stars, these are our singers. We put them on any time. Anytime somebody comes into my building I’m excited to show them what Count Me In has done for the students and what they have done for me. It’s made me really realize that for next year, Count Me In has to be a focus and the arts have to be a major focus for the school programs to get kids excited.
“I see students who shine in an area where I didn’t expect them to shine ... these are our stars, these are our singers.”
How has this program affected the environment at your school?
One of the main things is that it brings a sense of community with other children. We have 6th, 7th, and 8th graders who never would have spoken to each other now singing with each other, taking each other’s phone numbers down, saying “Are you coming here? Are you going there?” I’ve also noticed the mentorship that Chantel Wright has done with our students—four of my students are now singing in her choir Songs of Solomon and performing in different states. There’s a sense of community empowerment. They’re becoming more focused on what they want to be. It’s changed the fact that they’re not just focusing on now, they’re focusing on tomorrow. They are thinking to themselves, "If I want to be a singer or a dancer, what do I have to do now in middle school to make that happen?” I have never seen students so excited about applying for arts high schools, and never seen students focused on preparing for them. The fact that my students aren’t saying, “I want to download a hip-hop song” or the fact that they’re exploring different art forms, they’re broadening their horizons. For many of my students, they have never ever left Brooklyn, so the fact that they’re leaving Brooklyn with their minds and their hearts is exciting.
“[Count Me In students] aren't just focusing on now, they’re focusing on tomorrow.”
Is there anything else you want to share with us?
Honestly, I think arts education is the new frontier. Our kids are seen as the nobodies, and nobody really focuses on them. We talk about them, we write newspaper articles about them, but nobody talks about the consistent, systematic structures that need to be in place to engage these students. I think the arts and Count Me In do offer a practical solution.
The Weill Music Institute is currently recruiting schools to participate in Count Me In during the fall of 2012, in such neighborhoods as Bedford-Stuyvesant, Throgs Neck, Astoria, and Harlem. Apply today.
Count Me In