Transforming Lives through Music Education
In 2014, armed with a generous commitment of one million dollars from Kirk's Capital Campaign, Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church embarked on a journey to create a project that would touch the lives of its neighboring community, Pontiac, Michigan. Driven by a deep-rooted love for music and a belief in its ability to touch the human spirit, the Kirk leaders researched various avenues for social change through music. It was during this exploration that they stumbled upon the world of El Sistema-inspired programs—a global movement that has brought the gift of music to thousands of children worldwide, transforming their lives and strengthening communities.
The values and principles of El Sistema resonated deeply with the Kirk leaders, and the decision was made to launch Accent Pontiac, a music education organization where children from the Pontiac School District come together to learn, grow, and unlock their full potential. Accent Pontiac serves more than 270 students, providing a free comprehensive music education experience that includes in-school and afterschool classes. Through community-based partnerships, students receive transportation, daily snacks, and meals. The summer programs offer day camps, overnight experiences, and scholarships for students. Sommer Dawson, Accent Pontiac’s executive director, said, “Music brings the community together. When Accent Pontiac students perform, they create bonds with their audiences and boost community pride. Music adds vibrancy to communities and strengthens our sense of belonging and connection with others.”
A distinctive feature that sets Accent Pontiac apart is its unwavering commitment to giving children a voice, allowing them to compose their own music. Composition classes at the organization foster active listening, teamwork, and collaboration. Students come together to craft original pieces of music, requiring them to collaborate closely in order to integrate all elements into their new compositions. “Accent Pontiac has seen the powerful impact that music has on Pontiac students, including greater confidence, improved focus, increased school attendance, and stronger leadership skills. When a child discovers that they can create something of beauty and contribute that to their community, it can change the whole trajectory of what that child believes is possible for their life,” said Dawson.
Each activity at the organization is crafted to be culturally sensitive and place students at the forefront of their experiences. Alongside the musical curriculum, they have established a social-emotional curriculum that encompasses self-awareness, relationship-building, effective decision-making, and self-management. Dawson said, “We provide leadership activities throughout programming: younger students may be asked to count off the start of a piece or introduce a piece to the audience at a performance; older students may be asked to lead a piece during a rehearsal or performance, or to mentor a younger student.”
The onset of the COVID pandemic brought into sharp focus the mental health concerns faced by students across the nation, including those in Pontiac. Dawson said, “Students have shared feelings of anxiety and uncertainty with Accent Pontiac staff, and this has become more prevalent as students approach middle school. Our after-school programming supports students by providing a consistent presence with trusted adults that students can rely on.” Additionally, Accent Pontiac partnered with the Pontiac School District to offer students access to professional mental health services, when needed.
“I think some of the most important lessons we learned [from the pandemic] were around flexibility in our approach and to the specific needs of each of our students and families. During the pandemic, we pivoted to providing individualized lessons with students at their homes, outside on their porch,” said Dawson. This customized approach remains integral to the organization’s mission, as they continue to assess each student's unique circumstances and address any obstacles to their participation, including transportation and food accessibility. This current school year, with support from the NEA, Accent Pontiac will expand after-school programming at Pontiac Middle School to serve students transitioning from Herrington Elementary School, Walt Whitman Elementary School, and Alcott Elementary School.
Accent Pontiac’s students recently performed and received a standing ovation at the State of the City Address, an event that had more than 300 people in attendance. Dawson said, “By providing opportunities for Accent Pontiac youth to perform throughout the community, we not only develop the joy and confidence of Pontiac youth, we develop the pride of the Pontiac community in seeing its youth thrive through music.” Dawson added, “I received an email from a community group saying that they saw our students perform at the State of the City Address. She said that they were amazing and wondered if we would be available to participate in their upcoming event.”
Accent Pontiac is continuing to expand, hosting a four-day overnight musical retreat in West Michigan for a group of middle-school students, and looking into partnering with another El Sistema-inspired organization (i.e., Kalamazoo Kids in Tune or EcoSistema) for special programming that brings students together through music.
Reflecting on the organization’s impact thus far, Dawson said, “Social change is not something that takes place overnight; it is a gradual change in mindset and a societal view that can often take decades to fully achieve. We are achieving social change through music by providing opportunities for Pontiac students to be seen as leaders and creators, with hopes that how they are viewed by the community becomes the norm for Pontiac youth. Our young musicians are helping bring their community together through music.”