The 20 or so middle-grade students crammed into a Delano classroom Wednesday -- some holding violins and trumpets, others much bulkier guitarron bass guitars. At the start of the school year, some had never even held an instrument.
But there they were, learning music dynamics and rhythm concepts while practicing F-sharp notes on instruments traditionally used in mariachi bands. And they had just the right teacher -- Juan Morales, a former member of "Mariachi los Camperos de Nati Cano," a Grammy Award-winning, Los Angeles-based band.
The Paramount Bard Academy students are learning to play music through El Sistema, or The System, a world-renowned music education program making its appearance for the first time in a Kern County school.
The charter school is embracing El Sistema -- and already talking expansion -- at a time when public schools with less flexibility and philanthropic support are having to cut music offerings because of budget shortfalls.
The award-winning program, founded in Venezuela and featured on 60 Minutes, has been altered for Delano students.
El Sistema is orchestra-based, and not usually taught as curriculum within the school day. Paramount Bard's program is mariachi-based, a core subject on campus, and very much a part of day-to-day school life.
The programs have the same goal, however: teaching students music as they play in groups with a focus on changing attitudes about music.
"It's about social change and music," said Elsje Kibler-Vermaas, associate director of teacher education for Longy School of Music in Massachusetts, which has partered with New York's Bard College. The college and charter school are on the same school grounds in Delano. "Music in this program is used as a tool for social change. The basis is love, passion and joy."
Each middle school student at the charter school -- all 325 of them -- take instrumental and vocal classes by two full-time music teachers. Kibler-Vermaas checks on the classes every other week. She played for Gustavo Dudamel, the famed Los Angeles Philharmonic's music director and the most famous student to come out of El Sistema.
At the start of the school year, each student experimented with each instrument, then chose which to stick with. The pricey instruments were bought using funds through the Longy-Bard partnership, the local agriculture community and through a foundation of Stewart and Lynda Resnick, owners of Paramount Farms. The Resnicks founded the charter school.
The Paramount program itself is a work in progress because El Sistema was not designed to be a school program, instrumental music teacher Morales said.
There are difficulties in translating El Sistema into U.S. schools, partly because of our need to see hard data showing music education is helping kids succeed in school, according to news reports. The program skips music theory lessons and focuses instead on first enjoying and appreciating music while learning the basics along the way.
Charter schools like Paramount Bard Academy enjoy flexibility to develop curriculum and experiment with teaching methods. But they are public schools, and still must follow government regulations and accountability standards.
In the first semester, students learned about the culture and history of mariachi. This semester they are practicing music and learning the rudiments of it.
The program is helping "close the gap between generations" -- allowing students to learn about music their parents and parents' parents grew up with, said Morales, who has taught mariachi in Central Valley schools for more than a dozen years.
"The students look forward to it every day," Morales said.
The program "matched perfectly with Delano," said Joanna Kendrick-Miranda, Paramount Bard dean of curriculum, instruction and student services. About 90 percent of students at Paramount are Latino, according to state data.
Eighth-grader Vanessa Moreno said she likes that students get to learn so much about music during school, including the culture behind mariachi. And so does Moreno's mother.
"Other schools are dropping their music programs, and here they are embracing it," Maribel Moreno said.
It's been popular so far, school officials said. A recent winter concert showcasing the program brought out 600 attendees.
School officials hope to expand the program by tearing down a few classroom walls to make music rooms larger and install music studios.