Hartranft Elementary’s music teacher quit in December, and the North Philadelphia school was never able to hire a permanent replacement. So instead of learning the instruments and songs, students had a series of subtitles and worksheets.
As so many schools across the city and across the country hampered by an anemic reservoir of teachers, some the classes lacked permanent educators for all or part of the year.
But something unusual – director Keith Arrington would say miraculous – happened.
The Philadelphia police intervened, with drums and guitar, bass and vocals. And once a week they taught music to Hartranft students.
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It all started when the Hartranft School Advisory Board decided to approach the new leadership of the 26th Police District to expand the relationship the school had with its police officer. Arrington and Captain Maria Ortiz-Rodriguez spoke about the school’s needs, including the lack of a music teacher, and it planted a seed in Ortiz-Rodriguez’s mind.
“Obviously the music fills us up so much,” Ortiz-Rodriguez said. “I was trying to find a way to provide that for the kids.”
For weeks, a handful of musically trained officers dragged their gear up to the second floor music room at Seventh and Cumberland School, working with about 150 pupils. Hartranft, a K-8, registers about 350.
On Thursday, students and officers held a joyful culmination of their partnership, with students singing, dancing and rapping in the school’s multi-purpose hall. There were freestyle dances and spontaneous songs, students approaching officers with thanks and high-fives.
First graders moved on to “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from the movie Encanto, while Lt. Jeff Campbell played drums and Officer Dominick Gulli played guitar. Officer Stephanie Velazquez wowed the crowd with her voice.
Third-grade student Kyiana Sanders said it was “a bit boring” when there was no music teacher. But once the officers arrived, things changed.
“We learned about fourth notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes,” Kyiana said. “We have to play drums.”
The police, Kyiana said, “are nice.”
The students were wary of the police at first, officers said.
But eventually, “they warmed up to us and started engaging, started participating,” Ortiz-Rodriguez said. “They said, ‘Are you coming back next week?’ It’s seeing ourselves in a different light, just trying to build that trust and those relationships with the kids.
Gulli never imagined that “music teacher” would be part of his police resume, but he loved his time at Hartranft, he said. (And it didn’t hurt that he earned the name “Rock Star” for his cool riffs and the street clothes he walked into school on the first day.)
Classes gave students an outlet, an escape, Gulli said. And it helped them see the officers in a different light.
“Now more than ever, it matters,” Gulli said. “Children are afraid, not just of the police. I really hope we continue like this.
Campbell, who spent years as an officer in the Police Athletic League, is drawn to working with children. And at Hartranft, it was delicious to give the children what was most likely their first exposure to live music.
“It’s been one of the best experiences I’ve had in a long time,” Campbell said. (Teaching and performing for children was paramount, he said, but he also loved pairing his style — Campbell typically plays a mix of R&B, jazz and gospel — with Gulli’s punk.)
READ MORE: ‘I’m never coming back’: Philadelphia teachers explain why there’s a spike in mid-year quits.
No one is suggesting that agent work has replaced what a certified teacher would do, or that this model is scalable for the education system. But it was undoubtedly a highlight and brought moments of joy and collaboration in a really difficult year.
“We have a common goal, raising our young people,” Arrington said.
Staff shortages continue, however. Arrington has lost several teachers this year – in addition to the resignation of the music teacher, there have been long-term absences. He still has three vacancies for full-time jobs in the fall, but there is a silver lining.
“I hired a full-time music teacher,” he said.