When Jonathan De Leon left his home state of New Jersey to teach at North Miami Middle School in 2007, he immediately saw possibility — both in the school and the students.
A post-graduate teaching job in an affluent neighborhood in Philadelphia quickly convinced De Leon that North Miami Middle — persistently a low-achieving school, according to the Education Transformation Office, an arm of Miami-Dade Schools that supports targeted schools — was the place he could make a significant impact.
When he arrived, De Leon says he remembers a “nonexistent” music program with no instrumental electives and an over-enrolled chorus class, the only option available.
“I started here in 2007 as a social studies teacher and it was both challenging and wonderful,” said De Leon, 28. “Teaching history was great, but my passion has always been music.”
That passion gave impetus to what administrators, teachers and students at the school are calling a culture change: a transformation that started with the music program.
De Leon, who moved over to teaching music, helped write a grant proposal that gave the music department a much-needed blessing: a $14,000 grant from Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, funding new instruments and repairing broken ones. The guitars — 18 in total — arrived in February along with a new piccolo, a sousaphone and $4,750 allotted for repairs.
The foundation, inspired by the 1995 film, Mr. Holland’s Opus, funds school music programs across the country with new or refurbished instruments, plus money to support their initiatives.
Every year the foundation, based out of Studio City, Calif., receives hundreds of applications from schools nationwide. In this year’s grant cycle, Tricia Steel, the foundation’s program director, said she received approximately 500 grant proposals — and selected only 80 schools.
What set De Leon and North Miami Middle apart from the other schools, Steel said, was their story.
“We could tell in the past three years — specifically under the new administration — the climate of the school has really changed,” she said.
Among the changes: In 2008, a new building and a new magnet school with three academies — museum, international education and communications — and in 2011, a new principal, Alberto Iber, and a new music program.
From her interviews, Steel said she knew North Miami Middle had its share of problems. About 96 percent of the students were on free or reduced lunch and the socio-economic conditions of many families were not ideal.
Yet De Leon and band director LaToya Harris recruited almost half of the school’s student population into the music program — roughly 500 students. And the emphasis on music, with its discipline and training, has led to fewer behavioral issues among the students, which have declined by 30 percent, Iber said.
Additionally, the school is improving academically, he added. Although it is still ranked a C school, the school’s cumulative points last year rose from 513 to 536 points.
“We’re 24 points away from a B this year,” said Iber, which if it were to get this accolade, would be the first time in the school’s history.
Nehemiah Augustin, an eighth-grader at North Miami Middle and student band leader, said he is inspired by the band and the recognition and funding it has begun to receive.
“The money is developing the band into a whole new level,” said Nehemiah, 13, who has been in the band three years. “It will change how people look at the school.”
De Leon said he knew the competition for securing the grant would be great.
“I’m still floored that they chose us,” De Leon said. “The fact that we were able to get in with a cold application is a real testament to how committed they are to keeping music alive in our schools.”
De Leon is well aware of the impact music can play in one’s life. He recalls memories of his father teaching him Beatles songs and his first Fender Stratocaster electric guitar — a guitar, older than his students, that sits in the school’s practice room.
Shortly after coming to the school, De Leon reached out to Colin Moneymaker, a guitar player and teacher at the time. Together, they started an after-school program for students who wanted to learn guitar. They attracted more than 40 students in the first session; a private donor helped buy the school’s first six guitars.
“We knew we hit a vein,” De Leon said. “It opened my eyes to the opportunity we had here.”
After the initial success, De Leon worked to make the guitar and band program a vital part of the school’s enrichment curriculum. But while the students flocked to the program, De Leon and band director Harris soon noticed that long-term neglect and lack of funding left the school with broken, old and sometimes unusable instruments.
“It was very scary to face the fact that the quality of instruction and opportunities were threatened or severely limited because we either didn’t have enough instruments or what we did have were in disrepair,” De Leon said.
De Leon says this was the motivation for pursuing the grant, suggested to him by his partners at the New Leaders Council, an organization that recruits, trains and promotes progressive political entrepreneurs. The grant not only gave the school new instruments, but it instilled confidence and pride in the students.
Dr. Clifton Hamilton, the school’s international baccalaureate coordinator, said at least 60 percent of the school’s students struggle with math and reading, and they often need double the coursework to compensate.
He also said the school’s eight class periods — two more than the traditional six-period day — gives students a chance to explore their passions through electives such as the band and a separate guitar class.
“What if you came to school and had no classes you considered fun?’’ Hamilton said. “You had two reading classes and two math classes because someone kept telling you that you couldn’t pass a test. How would you feel about coming to school?”
The biggest ambassadors are the band students themselves.
“When I stepped into this building and that band room for the first time, I felt my life transform,” Nehemiah said. “For me to be here is a blessing. The picture couldn’t be clearer than that.”