STRINGS IN SCHOOLS
In addition to teaching the mastery of string instruments, the Strings in Schools program teaches students valuable personal lessons, including being on time for rehearsals, being dressed in uniform, being responsible for home practice and learning to respect everyone in the group. Special needs students and students with disciplinary problems have shown improved attitudes and motivation. Families have been enriched through having a young string player at home.
In 2004, encouraged by (then) School Board President Shelley Jones, Arts Coordinator Regina Noland, the String Quartet Society, and other community members, Dr. Anne Witt agreed to take on the founding of a program in string instruction for the Tuscaloosa City Schools. As a strings and orchestra teacher in the Austin, Texas public schools for 15 years, she had been a part of the phenomenal growth in strings in Texas. Her experience provided the model of a successful structure that would serve the Strings in Schools Program well.
In December 2004, after securing a $250,000 challenge grant from the Gloria Moody Foundation, Dr. Anne Witt met with the Tuscaloosa City School Board and provided a three-year start-up proposal including program design, curriculum, grade implementation, and an approximate budget. They expressed unanimous enthusiasm for the program but were not able to allocate any funds. However, after hearing of the challenge grant, they made a commitment to take over the funding once there were enough students to justify teacher workloads, and musical success was achieved.
With the help of School Board President Shelley Jones, String Quartet Society violinist and founder Emily Rogers, and Alabama Power Area Vice President Terry Waters, fundraising for the initiative that would be called "Strings in Schools," a suggestion from Cathy Randall, began. By December 2005, they had secured $300,000 in contributions or pledges from over 130 businesses and individuals.
Classes began in August 2005 at three middle schools: Eastwood, Tuscaloosa and Westlawn. Melissa Hickok, who had just completed her teacher certification and music degree from the University of Alabama, was the first teacher. In the program's first year, there were 18 students and 30 during the following year.
For the first three years of "Strings in Schools," salaries and benefits were paid with the funds raised. In the program's fourth year, the Tuscaloosa City School Board took over complete funding due to the program's great success.
In 2011, two additional teaching positions were added, increasing the strings faculty to five – Allison Lavender, Stephen Finley, Melvin Conley, Matthew Grant and Thomas Furlough. At the last combined concert in December 2016, there were 420 students. Today, the "Strings in Schools" program is so large that separate concerts are necessary.
Due to the generosity of Eugenia Dean, a significant endowment was provided for the Strings in Schools program. These funds are housed with the Tuscaloosa Education Foundation and are used for teacher professional development and to supplement the operational funds provided by the TCS.
After six years, Strings in Schools graduated its first class of high school students, many of whom have continued to play in their college orchestras. Three alumni have completed degrees in Music Education, becoming teachers themselves. Two more graduates began their Music Education degrees at UA in 2019. To help with their tuition costs, funds were raised to endow a scholarship at UA called “Strings in Schools Scholarship in Music Education.”
"From my work in the American String Teachers Association, I know of many string programs that have been started, but no city has ever begun a strings program through total funding from the community. Strings in Schools was commended by ASTA for our unique beginning. People in Tuscaloosa did not wait to receive a grant or state money. They did not look to the outside, but quickly "stepped up" to improve our own schools and enrich our children's lives. I provided leadership and experience, and our community made it happen!"
Dr. Anne Cleino Witt, Founder, Strings in Schools