“Free Beginner Program”

2023 Student Recruitment, Engagement, and Retention Award Recipient

Columbiana Middle School Band

Columbiana Middle School
Columbiana, Alabama


When taking over the Columbiana Middle School program four years ago, I was tasked with one job: increasing program enrollment. The pandemic hampered my first years with no in-person recruitment allowed, and other factors kept our incoming recruitment low. Before March 2020, I was awarded our first grant to make beginner bands accessible. Over the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years, because of the free beginner program and over $32,000 in grant money, the enrollment in the program has doubled from where we began. In 2022-2023, the beginner program will be larger than all grades above combined.


The primary objective was to increase Columbiana Middle School’s band program enrollment. This would primarily be done by bringing in more beginner students in the 6th grade each year. This was done by using grant money to repair or replace the current inventory of instruments in the school and to purchase new instruments to create an inventory to provide instruments to students free of charge. Once the students were in the program, the goal was to retain the students at 80% or higher each year, leading to increased enrollment in all three middle school grades and eventually into the high school band program.

In addition to these number goals, the retention would be done by bringing high-quality outside sectional instructors for each instrument weekly. The pandemic hampered this but began to take effect in the spring of 2022 and will continue.

Another primary objective of the initiative was to increase attendance at CMS overall. Studies show students involved in arts programs are more likely to show up for school each day. At the end of the 2019-2020 school year, CMS was ranked last in school attendance for all middle schools in our system. At the end of 2021-2022, it no longer held that record. I believe this was due to the higher enrollment in our arts programs. 2022-2023 and beyond should only increase as the numbers continue to grow.

By the beginning of 2022-2023, the program will double in numbers after bringing in our third beginner class of students benefiting from free instruments. There will also be an additional class of band instruction moving from 3 to 4 band classes in the day. The overall objective of growing the program is taking shape.

Target Audience

The target audience was incoming 6th-grade students. These were the target because they were not already in place in their elective classes at the middle school. I also wanted to be able to increase the number of the youngest students because I would be able to model their skills from the beginning of their instruction. As the director for all grades 6-12 at two schools, I wanted to be able to install a program that would eventually lead to increased numbers and ability at all grade levels.

I also increased enrollment in the program from students already enrolled at CMS. This was done from the general population of students, but also I was able to bring in students from our particular education unit. Before 2020-2021, the special education students were excluded from participating in the elective programs due to needing additional help in their academic areas. With the increased funding in the program and correlation with the special education department, I was able to bring in a few students into the band program that would not previously been able to participate. At the start of 2022-2023, we will have all students that want to join the band be able to participate! This was fantastic news to find out that now the band is genuinely the inclusive environment it should be for all students regardless of circumstances.

Another area of inclusion I am trying to increase is racial diversity in the program. The band program and school is majority Caucasian (85%+). However, our minority students, Black and Latinx, were not represented in the program in proportion to the school. Thanks to the initiative, we have exceeded the representation of students of minority races in the program compared to the overall school percentages.


The initiative began in the fall of 2019, with writing two grants to be awarded and used in the 2020-2021 school year. The grants totaling $22,500 were awarded in February and March of 2020 and allowed me to go ahead and plan for the repair and purchase of new instruments for 2020-2021. With the pandemic hitting, we couldn’t recruit students in person, and I took the initiative to help our school with elective recruitment. This was done by getting the band, choir, and our wheel (new subject every quarter) to create videos or presentations to join the program. This was my first instance of selling the fact that the band was a free program. Enrollment increased just a tiny amount, I believe, due to the lack of in-person experience. However, the program was set up for the future with 30 instruments, not including percussion, to be available to students free of charge.

In 2020-2021, I wrote another grant for $10,000 to be used in the 2021-2022 school year. This would increase our instrument inventory to over 40 wind instruments, and with other support, we could have up to ten percussionists. This would allow for up to 50 beginners each year. After this school year, we saw two things. The beginners brought in with the first year of free instruments stayed in the program with a retention rate of 89%. The second was I could go in person to recruit students; this led to an increase of 50% in beginner enrollment.

In 2021-2022, we saw the same results—a retention rate of 80% and a 50% increase in beginner enrollment.

Total numbers across 2020 to the present day are:

2020-2021- 32 total students

2021-2022- 43 total students

2022-2023- 67 total students (all began or will begin on a free beginner instrument)

Overview of Planning and Execution

The majority of the planning execution was done by myself. However, there were a couple of people that helped in the process. Michelle Hall, our School System Fine Arts Supervisor, pointed me in the direction of a clinic to learn about the grant program our state runs. I attended the clinic to learn about applying for the grant for our school. After that, she also proofread my proposal and helped with getting the appropriate signatures from our county CFO and Superintendent.

Sasha Johns is a parent in our program. She helped in two facets. One, she was one of our official grant readers for the process. You must nominate two individuals willing to read and score assignments for our state-funded grant. Sasha has a background in fundraising and community planning events, so she was an ideal candidate. She also pointed me in the direction of another grant sponsored by Powerade. Usually, these grants are directed to athletic endeavors, but we were able to secure them for our band program by crafting it as a way to train future athletes in the marching band.

I was the one that planned the purchases, wrote the grants, executed the repairs, distributed instruments, and supplies, and arranged for outside instructors. As well as the everyday instruction of the students. I was also the lead in the students’ recruitment, including creating videos, flyers, and a new “Willy Wonka Golden Ticket” promotion. The Golden Ticket is the informational flyer I sent home with each student with a full-size candy bar. I instituted this in the Spring of 2021 and 2022, and we saw a vast interest increase.

Also, I want to point out all the efforts of our administration, teachers, and bus drivers at our five local schools to make recruitment possible in 2021 and 2022.

Tools and Resources

During the process, I used two main to acquire instruments. The first was using our local music company, Gadsden Music Company, to help me find the best deal. They also executed all the repairs of currently inventoried instruments. Total Gadsden helped our program secure over 25 new or lightly used instruments.  Another support we used in the program was a stimulus program from manufacturers to help bring in more high-priced tools. We we able to purchase two french horns and an oboe for the cost of one horn and an oboe. This saved the program over $4500.

One of the main ways we could engage the students more was by changing method books. With the changeover and our school’s introduction to 1 for-1 Chromebook access, I could plan lessons for all scenarios of in-person, virtual, and hybrid instruction. All three we experienced various times from 2020-2022. This instruction allowed no interruptions in the learning process and gave my students and my benchmarks along the learning process.

Another massive resource during this time was our city’s new fine arts facility. This facility gave us greater access to performing venues for outdoor and indoor performances. They partnered with our Symphony Orchestra and gave students access to hear world-renowned musicians and gave us the ability to bring in instructors.

Finally, a new partnership with Yamaha music from my 40 for Forty awards allowed me access to professional networks that I did not previously have access to. This allowed me to revamp my lessons, and as a result, my students gained from these.

Marketing and Promotion

Marketing and promoting our program were done in four ways. The first was with traditional media. We partnered with our local paper, the Shelby County Reporter, to get the word out about grant awards. This led to our school system promoting the same article, which eventually led to me being on the morning news promoting our new program and the exciting things happening in the band program.

Second and Third, during the summer of 2020, I used a recruitment video to get the students to sign up for the band. This was effective in getting our first 20 students into the new program. In the future years of 2021 and 2022 recruitment, I was able to be in person where I used a Golden Ticket Promotion where students took home information about their golden ticket to being successful in life through the band. This saw the most significant increase doubling our numbers in two years.

Finally, I strive to have an active social media feed on Instagram and Facebook. I promoted the program’s fundraising accomplishments, students’ accomplishments, and overall program success. During the school year, I always tried to post multiple times a week to generate some outside influence on the program. This led to more awareness of the band program besides the public performances, mainly at athletic events. It also drove the idea that band is not just at the high school. The process starts in the 6th grade at middle school, and the band the football fans see on Friday has been a working progress for 2-3 years before that.


Our main expenditures in the process were on instruments. In total, we did 31,600 dollars on instrument repairs and purchases. Of that, $27,100 was spent on new instruments, including 1 Selmer Oboe, 6 Yamaha Clarinets, 2 Yamaha Alto Saxophones, 1 Yamaha Tenor Sax, 2 Yamaha Trumpets, 2 King Trumpets, 2 Conn French Horns, 3 Yamaha F Attachment Trombones, 2 Jupiter Baritones, and 2 Yamaha Tubas. $4500 went to repairs on 4 Flutes, 4 Clarinets, 2 Altos, 3 French Horns, 6 Trumpets, 5 Trombones, and 1 Tuba. The other 900 dollars were used to purchase cleaning kits, reeds, supplies, and percussion practice pads and sticks. Percussion students use the in-house marimba, vibes, xylophone, and bells. They also use the drums we already had and take home the practice pads for in-home instruction.

We also received additional funding for traditional materials for the classroom, such as method books, t-shirts, and outside instruction from our minimal class fee required by the school system. Total, this was around $2000 over the two school years.


Our first challenge was being able to get the word out initially about the program. With the funding being awarded in the Spring of 2020, we were sent home due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. This did not allow me to get into the elementary schools to promote the fact that the students had the chance to participate for free. As things progressed the next two years, this was resolved as I could go in person, and my current students were allowed to perform in 2022.

Another obstacle was what do we do if an instrument breaks or a student loses an instrument? Luckily, we did not have a loss of an instrument, but we had each student and parents sign a contract stating they were using it for the year and know that if they were to break or lose the instrument, the cost would be on the family. This helped the students take ownership of their instruments.

The other big question was, what happens after year one. Will the students and families purchase their instruments? How do we supply instruments for students that cannot afford one for the second year and beyond instruction? I was sure this would be a more significant issue, but I also knew that students get sold on the band after trying it. Using high-quality instruments and instruction, they had success and wanted to continue. Parents saw their drive and enthusiasm and were willing to support the significant financial investment in an instrument. For larger school instruments, we have been able to raise money with booster funds for tubas to help with that cost. Our next plan is to purchase french horns and euphoniums as those numbers grow.

Success/Effectiveness Measurement

The initiative was beyond effective. Over two school years, 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, the total band enrollment at Columbiana Middle School doubled. In addition, the instrumentation of the band program has become more ideal. With the students having the option of performing on specific instruments that are free, I can stir students toward instruments that will be best for them. Each student is tested on all instruments, and based on their results, I can place them on our free beginner instruments. This has led to more excellent knowledge grasped by the students because they are not fighting the instrument and can focus on the learning process. It also guarantees me balanced instrumentation as they progress in the program.

Each year the beginner program grows, and in this coming school year of 2022-2023, the program is almost maxed out with instruments available. Over 40 students signed up for the beginner band, and we are trying to find more funding for future years. With over 1/3 of the 6th grade in beginner band and 18% of the total population enrolled, the program has exceeded numbers. The band program will serve the overall total student population in the coming years, 30% of the school.

In addition, we have been able to recruit students from minority backgrounds that used to not participate in bands that exceed 15% of our program, which is a more significant percentage of the whole school. We also can offer the program to special education students. This has led to the program being the most inclusive on campus.

Growth across the two years:

2020-2021- 32 total students

2021-2022- 43 total students

2022-2023- 67 total students (all began or will begin on a free beginner instrument)

Community Impact

The initiative positively impacted our music program by allowing others to see that our band program is essential to the community. In my first year at the program, the outside perspective on the program was one of a negative outlook. Many people saw it as an exclusive club of “rich” kids. The numbers also showed this, with the total band population (grades 6-12) now being less than the entire middle school population. Directly the band is viewed as a group that is a beacon of hope for the community. More students involved at a young age will lead to a more extensive program overall in the coming 4-7 school years. Estimates show that the program will encompass 20% of the high school and over 30% of the middle school in seven years. This would be the largest the band has ever been in Columbiana and built the right way with all involved.

Within our district and local area, two other low-economic area schools have started the same program with my model as their basis. This will lead to more students in the State of Alabama being exposed to instrumental education. This can only mean that we are leading the way in bringing a better quality of education to students in the state.

Advice for others?

Look for grant opportunities and partner with local organizations. Many of my partnerships have led to more partnerships that lead to great results. If you don’t know any of these, get on the phone and call people that may. Call your senators and congresspeople and advocate for music education.