Fifth-grade strings program draws veteran music instructor back

Fifth-grade itinerant strings teacher Sally Pool instructs students at Gonzales Elementary. Fifth-grade strings was reintroduced during the last school year as it was found that students can benefit from the instruction before heading to middle school. (Courtesy Photo)

To help make the transition for elementary string students to middle school easier, Ector County ISD has brought back fifth-grade strings.

Sally Pool, a formerly retired strings teacher, is the itinerant fifth-grade string instructor. Retired for two years before coming back, she has taught music and been an assistant director and director of orchestra for ECISD at all levels for 28 years.

The last four years, Pool was assistant orchestra director at Permian High School.

Before middle schools were introduced to the district, every middle school director and the itinerant instructor had elementaries assigned for them to teach at five days a week.

It was found that missing that year of instruction didn’t benefit students, so Executive Director of Fine Arts Aaron Hawley and Fine Arts Coordinator Shari Riley decided to bring back fifth-grade strings.

Pool is the only itinerant instructor, but all the middle school directors have schools of their own and both high schools.

As of late August, Riley said they were covering 15 or 16 campuses.

“We are adding campuses as we can. We’re working with everyone’s schedule,” Riley added.

Middle and high school directors are going to the elementary schools to teach fifth-graders strings.

“When they start orchestra in fifth grade, it gives them a whole year to learn how to read music, learn how to do rhythms, learn how to make music with a group of people, not just you by yourself,” Pool said.

That prepares them to go to a middle orchestra, band or choir. They’re learning how to make music on their own, how to read it, write it and perform it on their own or in a big group.

Pool said this gives them somewhere to belong with like-minded students.

“It just makes it a lot better experience and they tend to do better grade-wise. They tend to do better with relationships … It’s really great, and like I said, it creates a love for making music, not just listening to it but actually making music on their own,” she added.

The program is funded through the FMH Foundation and the Rea Greathouse Charitable Trust, Riley said.

The funds go toward purchasing instruments. They are in the second year of those grants.

The strings program restarted in the 2022-23 school year, but with 28 to 30 elementary campuses, not all of which have fifth grade, they couldn’t do it all at once. The plan was to implement it over three years; this is the second year.

Riley said they started with some of the middle and high school directors, but then were fortunate to bring Pool back.

“She’s doing fabulous,” Riley added. “Students are flocking to this. Our enrollment is much larger than we anticipated and so we’re excited about that. It’s a win-win whether they continue to orchestra or move on to band or another music fine arts. It creates a connection, possibly, with a middle school teacher. If they are headed to that middle in sixth grade, then they already have a relationship with a teacher. That’s important. That’s a very difficult transition going into sixth grade, so we’re trying to give them an activity and a place to belong in addition to excellent fine arts education.”

Growing up in Odessa, Pool started playing piano in first grade and picked up violin in sixth grade and flute in junior high and high school. She added that there are musicians throughout her family.

She attended Dowling, Bonham, Permian, Odessa College and University of Texas Permian Basin and taught for ECISD.

“When I started at Bonham, I only knew how to play violin. But then you have to learn everything because you’re teaching everything, so those first couple of years, I’m just learning right along with the kids. But I love it. It’s the greatest job,” Pool said.

In late August, she saw 121 students, but more students were coming. She said she talked to each fifth-grade class to recruit students.

“(I) played a little bit of every instrument, let them see what they could be doing,” she said. Then she sent a parent note or a QR code because the students have to have parental permission to participate,” Pool said.

She stressed that there are a lot of people in on making the program successful.

“Secondary and elementary principals are having to get on board and really, really work to say okay, I can give up the secondary director to go teach elementary and then the elementary principals are saying okay, you can come to my campus at this time. It’s just so many little pieces going together to make this possible for fifth grade that it’s a district wide effort. It’s nice that it’s important to that many people that we can see the importance of fine arts with our kids,” Pool said.