Education / 2013

Harmony Project

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by Harmony Project

Harmony Project is an award-winning 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that targets low-income at-risk youth in underserved areas of Los Angeles. Founded in 2001 by a doctor of public health, Harmony Project is built upon the latest social science research on arts education. With a strong focus on peer mentorship, family support, and college incentives, Harmony Project changes the course of disadvantaged children’s lives. A feature that distinguishes Harmony Project among local arts education programs is that we commit to children throughout their entire childhood, regardless of their changing schools and circumstances. Students benefit intellectually, emotionally, socially and even physically, and their involvement in our programs sets a foundation for greater well-being now and in the future. Beginning in 2001 with only 36 students, Harmony Project currently commits to 1500 students for their entire childhood – from elementary and middle school through high school and beyond – to ensure they receive the support and guidance needed to graduate high school and continue to college. The students we serve come from families who’s income is within 185% of the federal poverty level, which is the same income test as the federal school meal subside. By virtue of the neighborhoods and poverty in which they live, Harmony Project’s target population is at risk for juvenile involvement in gangs, drug and alcohol abuse, aggression, school drop-out, teenage pregnancy and parenting, depression, and suicide. Most of our programs are located within Los Angeles’ twelve Gang Reduction & Youth Development Zones designated by the Mayor’s Office, neighborhoods up to four square miles in area where documented rates of violent gang crime are 400% greater than elsewhere in the city. While dropout rates exceed 50% in the Los Angeles communities we serve, 95% of Harmony Project’s high school seniors have graduated in four years and virtually all have gone on to college or trade school. We look forward to a future Los Angeles that is rich in culture, music education programs and performing ensembles throughout all of its diverse neighborhoods. Harmony Project firmly believes that wealth should not be a pre-requisite to the accessibility of music education and the myriad of benefits that result from the study and practice of this. The study and practice of music provides a wide range of benefits in terms of cognitive and social development (e.g., improved academic performance, self-esteem, behavior) and at a physiological level, learning music rewires the brain and nervous system in ways that improve language learning, support math achievement and effective listening, and help students develop both patience and focus. Furthermore, music builds community that cuts across barriers of class and culture, bringing together and celebrating diversity, while also creating a wide-ranging network of like-minded and involved citizens. Specifically through our Peer Mentoring program, Harmony Project is shaping the future of Los Angeles by creating a conglomerate of educated, creative, and dedicated alumni who not only will become active members of society, but more importantly are learning to become advocates for themselves, their neighbors, and their communities. The seed of giving back is planted early on in Harmony Project participants. Whether you are a student mentee, a student mentor, or one of the professional teaching artists, this multi-generational system teaches the importance of working within a community and the importance of re-investing in where you have come from. It is not just the 100 mentors a year or the 200+ mentees that are influenced by the success of this program. The positive results are felt within the entire culture of Harmony Project, affecting each of the 1,500 students that go through the program yearly. As a result, an endless ripple effect is created through generations of Harmony Project participants, their families, and the surrounding community now and as they continue through life. Involvement in the intensive and demanding Peer Mentoring program helps to keep older students engaged in music throughout adolescence, giving them purpose and motivation to complete the Harmony Project program, graduate from high school, and continue onto college. Students must be enrolled in school, turn in report cards, and show musical and character progress in order to continue participation in Harmony Project programs. We find that when older students are selected and trained to take leadership roles, they eagerly rise to the occasion and in-turn inspire younger students to follow their example. Peer-to-peer mentoring develops leadership capacity and responsibility, teaching and mentoring skills among our older students as well as builds relationships that cut across barriers of class, age, and culture, creating a sense of inclusion and comradery.


What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

The Harmony Project has won numerous accolades, including the Coming Up Taller Award from the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities – the nation’s highest honor for an arts-based youth program. We have been featured in the Los Angeles Times and on NBC and CBS Nightly News, PBS’ Turning Point, CBS Early Show, Hallmark Channel’s Naomi’s New Morning, Univision’s Despierta America and Orgullo Hispano, ABC’s Eye on LA and Vista LA, Hot 92 JAMZ, KXN Radio and other media outlets.

A feature that distinguishes Harmony Project among other local arts education programs is that we commit to children throughout their entire childhood, regardless of their changing schools and circumstances. With a strong focus on peer mentorship, family support, and college incentives, Harmony Project changes the course of disadvantaged children’s lives. While dropout rates exceed 50% in the communities we serve, 95% of Harmony Project’s high school seniors have graduated in four years and virtually all have gone on to college or trade school. In addition, Harmony Project provides college incentives and scholarship opportunities to help facilitate the difficult transition to college. In May, we learned that one of our former students, Brettany Tucker, became a Fulbright Scholar for the 2012-13 school year! Moreover, four current students were accepted and now attend the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, one of the premier public arts high schools in the US!

In January, Harmony Project’s YOLA/EXPO orchestra attended master classes with Símón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, and also performed together at Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Downtown LA. In attendance was El Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu – El Sistema is the hugely successful Venezuelan music program that Harmony Project is in part modeled after. In addition, the YOLA/EXPO orchestra has recently had the opportunity to perform with renowned conductor Sir Simon Rattle, Gustavo Dudamel, Stevie Wonder, and on the Tonight Show with Rickey Minor.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

We are grateful to have a wide network of partnerships that support our endeavors to promote positive youth development and also provide facility space for children to learn in safe, nurturing environments. These include The Professional Musician’s Union Local 47, LA City College, The Department of Recreation and Parks and the LA Philharmonic at Expo Center. We also partner with LAUSD and LAUSD’s Beyond the Bell branch as well as Lennox, Lawndale, Wiseburn School Districts, and Glassell Park Elementary School. We also work with the Boys & Girls Club, YMCA, Vince Womack at the Foshay Learning Center, Brotherhood Crusade, Blazer Youth Center, Lula Washington, PS Arts, the World Stage and Barbara Morrison in Leimert Park.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

Harmony Project closely tracks each student’s musical progress as well as character development twice annually. Musical progress is an important process objective because it correlates with student engagement in the program. Character development is based upon responsibility, commitment, community, self-discipline, attitude, resourcefulness.

Student enrollment levels and characteristics – including detailed information on those that have exited the program – are regularly reported at board meetings. We use the ETO data system to track and report student outcomes. Submission of school report cards is also part of each student’s annual application package. We will look at the growth of the mentor program as well as the retention rate of mentors, program participants, teaching artists, and staff.

Progress towards our primary goal of positive change in our students is assessed through surveys and regular interaction with the families we serve. In our most recent impact evaluation survey, a high percentage of parents indicated that - since joining the Harmony Project - their child has shown improvement in his/her grades (74%), behavior (78%), mood (76%), and health (68%).

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

Harmony Project exists to serve low-income families, for whom the program is provided at no cost. Harmony Project founder, Dr. Margaret Martin, saw how music can shape intellectual development in underserved children and bring hope and greater well-being to families facing substantial challenges. With rare exception, we accept only those families whose income is below 185% of federal poverty level (this corresponds to the eligibility criteria for the Los Angeles Unified School District’s free/reduced lunch program). The neighborhoods we serve must have at least 50% of students eligible for the lunch program.

Currently, students’ age range is from 6-18, with an average age of 11; 59% are female and 41% are male. The demographics of the 1,659 unduplicated youth we serve are: 70% Latino, 10% African-American, 10% Asian/Pacific Islander, 2% White, and 8% Mixed/Other/ Unknown.

By virtue of their poverty and the neighborhoods in which they live, Harmony Project’s target population is at risk for juvenile involvement in gangs, drug and alcohol abuse, aggression, school drop-out, teenage pregnancy and parenting, depression, and suicide. Most of our programs are located within Los Angeles’ twelve Gang Reduction & Youth Development Zones designated by the Mayor’s Office, neighborhoods up to four square miles in area where documented rates of violent gang crime are 400% greater than elsewhere in the city. The study and practice of music provides a wide range of benefits in terms of cognitive and social development (e.g., improved academic performance, self-esteem, behavior). With cutbacks in public education, no music program in Los Angeles is providing the type of program that can deliver these benefits. The RAND Corporation’s 2004 report entitled, Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of Arts, highlights that “the most important benefits require sustained involvement in the arts.” Even with the many arts organizations in the city, no other commits to students for their entire childhood, providing a hands-on, year-round program with high expectations, and other program elements research has shown to be effective in fostering positive changes in participants.

Harmony Project is providing services to communities that otherwise remain isolated and invisible. The students and families participating in Harmony Project today are the future of Los Angeles. We are creating the next generation of community members who will be educated, productive members of society and who will be eager to seek out, support, promote and participate in a Los Angeles rich in culture and music. These participants who graduate today will come back to invest, teach, and support social programs that will benefit new generations to come.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

We look towards a future Los Angeles where high school graduation is the rule, not the exception. Our vision of success includes sustaining the high school graduation rate of 95% throughout our program participants in order to create a diverse Los Angeles community of educated professionals who are active and engaged in sustaining a community rich in culture and accessible programs that provide access to music education. We believe that by continuing to build on our successful Peer Mentoring program that has proven to help see kids through high school and college, we are helping to break the cycle of poverty and shaping the future of Los Angeles.