DANVILLE — First graders at Cannon and Northeast Magnet schools in Danville are learning reading, writing and — starting in January — violin.
That's when the school district will launch a violin pilot program for the schools' first-grade classes.
"I think it's wonderful for students to pick up an instrument at an early age," said Northeast Principal Kimberly Norton, who believes they will develop more than just musical skills. "It's attentiveness and listening and that focused discipline — all of which will carry over to other content areas."
The program — which will be taught by a University of Illinois doctoral student — was made possible through a Danville Public Schools Foundation grant.
The grant of up to $12,000 will be used to buy violins for both schools. The school district will cover instructor Aaron Jacobs' $8,000 stipend and any additional instrument costs.
The early elementary strings program was modeled after the Fairview Violin Project, started in 2008 at the mostly low-income Fairview Elementary School in Bloomington, Ind., by a music professor at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music. The Attica, Ind., school district adopted the program for first and second-graders in 2010, and later expanded it to include an optional violin study for third graders.
Danville schools Superintendent Mark Denman became intrigued with the Attica project after learning about it from a community member last spring. He rounded up a small expedition — including Norton, Cannon Principal Kimberly Pabst and foundation Director Bob Richard — to go see the program in action.
"To say that we were wowed was an understatement," said Denman, who watched a group of second graders walk into a classroom in an orderly fashion, stand on their assigned squares of carpet, sing and then play notes on their violins and count beats in Spanish, among other things.
The Danville group was further impressed after talking to officials about the curriculum and the benefits. Attica officials reported seeing increased self-discipline, responsibility, self-confidence and academic achievement.
"They really felt ownership in the program, and they were soaking up the information," said Pabst, who initially was concerned that first-graders were too young and might damage the fragile instruments. Now she can't wait to see those same feelings of ownership and accomplishment with her students.
"Some of them may never have seen a violin before," she said, adding they may develop an interest in playing a musical instrument or an appreciation for music that they will carry the rest of their lives.
Under the Danville program, Jacobs will work with 48 Northeast students, then 49 Cannon students for 30 minutes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. He was at both schools on Thursday to measure students for violins.
Denman approached those schools first because Cannon has had a successful before- and after-school violin program for third through fifth graders, started by music teacher Carol Hummer and now run by her successor, Lynn Chasanov. And at Northeast, fifth graders can join band, although there aren't any string instruments.
Students will start off by learning the parts of the violin and bow and basic elements of music and rhythm. They will hold a concert in May at Danville High School's Dick Van Dyke Auditorium.
Danville officials will evaluate the program in June. If deemed successful, it could be expanded to second grade at both schools the following year.
After two years, officials could consider expanding it to other elementary schools, depending on funding.