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Everyone Can Sing

Hester Junior High School, IL

2836 Gustav St, Franklin Park, IL 60131, USA
Franklin Park District 84
Director: Marilee Castaneda
Category: Retention Program
Award: Bronze, 2020

Project Description

We are a Title 1 School in the state of Illinois. Our school has the philosophy that student involvement in the arts leads to better student attendance, behavior and academic achievement. In the extracurricular choral program, all students are welcome to participate regardless of talent or financial circumstances. Students attend two or three before school rehearsals at 7:30 a.m. and participate in three or more concerts per year, a musical production and are also taken on two or more field trips per year to perform, as well as to see professional performances. Over the past ten years or so, more than one third of the school (approximately 150 students) has participated in one or more aspects of the choral program, and has also made up between one third and one half of the continuing participants in the high school program out of seven feeder schools. We wish to help students to have a means to express themselves creatively, to learn how to work well with others, to learn and experience empathy and problem solving. The musical in February is a big draw, since students must be a member of choir to participate. However, if they are a choir member they are guaranteed at least an ensemble role in the show. Over the past three years close to 150 students have participated in Disney’s Aladdin, Lion King and Mary Poppins, Jr. In addition, many former students from high school age to adult, return to help with the production by playing in the pit orchestra, helping with hair and makeup and working behind the scenes during the shows. This has not only become a favorite school event, but also a community event with many future students and families as well as former students returning with their own children to see the shows. There is also a scholarship fundraising event in conjunction with the musical to raise money to help send choir members to a summer music camp at the University of Illinois.

Target Audience

Students and families in Franklin Park, IL. Our school is 66% hispanic, and 29% white, with many second generation Polish immigrants as well. 74.5% of our students are considered low income.

Overview of planning and execution process for this project

Choir rehearsals begin the second week of school at 7:30 in the morning. Students who are in 6th grade come to rehearsals on Monday and Wednesday mornings, as well as Friday if there is a Monday holiday, and 7th and 8th graders come on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. This is due to the fact that students can also participate in the band program on alternate mornings. Students in 7th and 8th grade can also audition for a select chamber group of approximately 21 singers which rehearses during the lunch/recess hour one day a week and after school another day for an hour. We prepare first for a fall concert in November with all three choirs performing separately during the concert. Immediately following the concert auditions are held for main character roles in the school musical. After the main roles are cast, we begin rehearsals – usually right after Thanksgiving. Chorus still maintains the morning rehearsal schedule to learn ensemble numbers, and main characters come in during the lunch/recess hour and after school to learn their roles. We rehearse for three weeks before Winter break, learning a few of the big ensemble numbers, and continue for six weeks after break in January and February to put the whole show together for three performances during the week of President’s Day in February.

In the middle of the musical preparations, we also repeat our 7/8 grade portion of the fall concert the third week of January at the high school for the annual high school recruitment at Leyden HS called “Sing ‘n Share”.

In December, the select chamber group called BASSically TREBLE does several performances at local community events such as the Chamber of Commerce holiday luncheon and perhaps a nursing home or hospital. In February, they sell and perform Singing Valentines around the school as a fundraiser for the chorus scholarship fund.

The large chorus then has six or seven weeks after the musical to prepare for the annual Variety and Chorus Awards Concert. We perform this concert in the evening for parents, and then for all three elementary schools as a recruitment tool for the upcoming year.

After this concert, 8th grade chorus members have six or seven rehearsals to prepare two songs to sing for graduation.

Community Impact

The choral project at Hester Junior High has given students self-confidence, and allowed them to express their creativity in many ways. One student, who was given a lead role in the musical for the past two years is autistic, and was non-verbal in elementary school. He has found his passion and his talent for singing and performing on stage in front of hundreds of people, because of this program. In fact, two years ago, there was another student with autism who also landed a lead role in the musical and found his voice. This has not only boosted these boys’ self-confidence, but also given the other students in the school a different perspective, sense of acceptance and insight into the abilities and gifts of people who may seem different. Choir helps to create a sense of family, love and empathy as well as joy in the raising of voices together in harmony.

Overall budget


Specific Budget Breakdown

  • 1200 – choral music for three choirs and two concerts
  • @800-1000 royalty fees and materials for the musical
  • 900 – choreographer
  • 1500-2000 – costumes made by seamstress and parents
  • 800-1000 – extra musicians/professional and high school

What was your total program enrollment during the prior school year?

147 students in chorus and 424 students in General Music 4

What is your projected program enrollment for the current school year?

150 students in choir and 500 students in General Music

New or recurring project?


How did you update/change this project from its previous occurrence?

This project is constantly changing from one year to the next. For example, BASSically TREBLE was first started in 2012 to help fulfill the need for talented students who wanted to learn more difficult material in a smaller group setting. Each year, we are looking for new ways to retain previous members and recruit new ones through performances during lunch or in the hallways. We are constantly presenting new research which shows the benefits of learning music and participating in a choral or musical group. We look for new opportunities outside of the school day to both perform and learn about how music can be a lifelong endeavor, no matter what your chosen career, and how music can be used to enhance your life both physically and emotionally.

Challenges/obstacles that were encountered

Several challenges are currently ongoing. One is having enough proper chairs in my classroom to seat around 100 students for a rehearsal. We are still trying to find funding to replace some of the 50+ year old folding chairs.

Our parent group has shown great initiative over the past several years to help with the cost of costumes and other expenses for the musical. They have implemented a silent auction as well as other concessions and homemade souvenirs to be sold at the door for the musical and other concerts. They have also brought in concessions to be sold at the fall school open house to help raise money for the music department.

This past year we performed a Junior version of Mary Poppins, and I was able to convince my superintendent to bring in an outside company to fly Mary, Bert and Miss Andrew during the production. This was the first time we had tried something like this, and it did take some convincing, especially as relates to liability and cost, to get the administration to agree. The effect, however, was spectacular and an amazing experience for the students who were flown as well as for the audience. Two former Hester students who are currently in college also came in to learn how to work the equipment and fly the characters. Since it is not a usual expense, the district agreed to cover the $4000 cost outside of my regular budget.

It is also always a challenge to help students learn the amount of material that we perform in the short amount of rehearsal time that we have. I have learned to use online rehearsal recordings and video of choreography and the students, so that they can review and work on materials at home.

Measurement of the success/effectiveness of this project?

When I began teaching in 1985 there were 30 students in choir. The numbers have now grown to around 150. In addition to the increased numbers in my choir, the number of students who continue in choir at the high school level has also continued to increase. The parent involvement, especially these past two years, has also impacted the success of the program, by allowing us the money and the flexibility to give the students more opportunities.

Advice for someone looking to replicate this project in their own community?

Create a good rapport with every student with whom you have contact. Invite students individually and personally to participate in your program, by telling them that they each have a talent and gifts to give and share with the group. Then you should also note individual talents and give them tasks that help them to improve and show off their talents.

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