Shadi Kanan taps urgently on his leg, urging his classmates to dispense with tackling unfamiliar musical terms such as "composer." He doesn't want to wait another minute to play the
, or Middle Eastern goblet drum, tucked between his legs.
Shadi shrugs when he talks about what the music means to him.
"It's just, it's fun," said Shadi, a student at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences.
Tests are important at Feltonville, a middle school. Achievement matters.
But music, drama and drawing bring some students to school. Pupils pound out rhythms on the
play keyboards, and paint murals.
"There has to be a hook for every one of them to get them to come to school and learn," said principal Ralph Burnley. "For some, this is the hook."
For years, the school, formerly known as Central East, had a solid art and drama program. But funding fell, and for a time, students had no music classes.
Two years ago, the school opened in a new building, renamed and now part of a "Feltonville Community Campus" composed of Barton, a kindergarten-through-second-grade school, and Feltonville Intermediate, with grades three to five, as well as Feltonville Arts and Sciences, a building for grades six to eight that would emphasize the arts, officials decided.
The program choices reflect the school's diversity. More than half of Feltonville's 750 students are Latino, but there is a large African American population and also Asian, white and Arabic students.
Feltonville faces real challenges. Most students are poor, turnover is high, and for several years running, Feltonville has been labeled failing under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
But attendance is up. Halls are orderly. And test scores are rising steadily. Last year, Feltonville just missed the mark set by the state.
"Is that related to the arts? We can't say for sure, but we'd like to think so," Burnley said.
On a recent weekday, the school hummed with activity. In Joel Kutner's music room, where math and literature find their way into lessons, students sat in a circle with their brightly colored
Joseph Tayoun, an instructor with Arab arts organization Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, directed the students in a lively percussion session. Feltonville has a small but growing Arab population, and officials reach out through Tayoun and a storytelling program led by New York actress and author Leila Buck.
Doom doom tikka tak tak doom tikka tak
, students beat, eyes fixed on Tayoun.
Shadi, the eager drummer, broke from his sixth-grade cool to allow a small smile. He likes that the rhythms are familiar to him, he said.
"They're drums from my country. Sometimes, I play them at my house, or at weddings," said Shadi.
Sonja Tercier, 12, likes the sounds her drum makes and the unfamiliar songs she's learning. Math is her favorite subject, she said, but music is a bright spot in her day.
"We play around, and dance and sing and learn all kinds of stuff," she said. "It's like a break."
Tayoun, who was preparing students for an Arab cultural arts celebration held last week at the school district, looked out at his sixth graders and assured them they would have time to play all the rhythms they knew.
"It's amazing to have this many kids this focused," said Tayoun.
There are plenty of options for students: a new choir, a guitar club, individual instrumental music lessons, and a band. Because of a partnership with the Pennsylvania Ballet, there are twice-weekly lessons in salsa, ballet and jazz.
"We'd like to do more," said assistant principal Joseph Showalter, himself a trombone player, "but like everyone else, we're restricted by our budget."
In recent years, some schools lost art and music to budget cuts, but the School Reform Commission has directed all schools to make sure some form of instruction happens in those subjects. Feltonville keeps its focus on the arts through partnerships with outside groups and through moving teachers around and tightening in other areas, Showalter said.
Still, some students have never had an art lesson or a music class.
"There's no way you can make up for such a lot of deficit, but we try," Showalter said.
Students have responded beautifully, Showalter said, pointing to the boy teetering on the edge of failure until he was admitted to Kutner's morning guitar club.
"He lives for coming to school now, because he knows if he behaves, he'll be able to play the guitar," Showalter said.
No one is expecting musical prodigies or famous artists, Showalter added, just kids who appreciate the arts and get a comprehensive education.
Buck, the actress working with students on the storytelling project connecting the work of Lebanese American author Kahlil Gibran with students' lives, says Feltonville has "an amazing energy."
She travels from New York to work with Al-Bustan, and Feltonville students make the journey worth it, she said after a session guiding a handful of students in writing about a place they relate to.
Sharif Jaber, 14, wrote about Puerto Rico, where he lived for six years before moving to Jordan.
"Everything is so beautiful there, and the beach is so warm, not like Atlantic City," the eighth grader said.
He and Buck, the daughter of an American father and Lebanese mother who spent some of her youth in the Middle East, talked in low tones about what it felt like to be connected to a place while living in another place.
"They're immigrants, they come from immigrant families," Buck said later. "They're between worlds, and they relate to this."
Burnley, who has been at Feltonville for eight years, the last few as principal, admits he's a convert to an emphasis on subjects that don't necessarily show up on standardized tests.
"I was all academics when I first came here," he said. "Then I saw what the arts can do."
"The more opportunities we give kids, the more chances they have to do well," Burnley said. "Their behavior changes when they find something they like to do."