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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Bennie Walsh knew the word he was trying to pull out of his head.

"It was like I was sitting right in a . um . um ..."

The 9-year-old third-grader was trying to describe what it was like to step into a small classroom for the first time to the startling sight of 25 piano keyboards in neat rows, The Kansas City Star ( ) reported.

Sean Saunders knows the feeling.

Saunders is the third-year principal of the small Hope Leadership Academy charter school. He felt the same wonder in November 2013, on a tour of New Orleans schools, when he came upon a similar sight in one classroom.

What is this? He had to know.

Because in that moment, as a principal wanting to nurture a fine arts-based elementary school for children in some of Kansas City's highest-poverty neighborhoods, he was imagining what it would mean to kids like Bennie.

"It was like I was sitting." Bennie smiled as the word came to him.

". in a symphony."

What Saunders had stumbled upon in New Orleans was one of the more than 130 schools in the nation — most of them in New York City — that had won grants from the nonprofit Music and the Brain program.

"It was like finding a gold nugget in the Colorado River," Saunders said.

That same day he called his school in Kansas City and told his music teacher, Jenny Potter, what he had discovered.

She hopped onto the Internet, found the Music and the Brain website, and read about its mission and the work it had done for dozens and dozens of New York City public schools.

She also found its grant application and got right on it.

It helped that Potter was trained as a grant writer. It also would help that she was convincing and persistent.

Because the founder and director of Music and the Brain — Lisha Lercari — stands at its gate.

And she freely admits, "I'm not thrilled with charter schools."

"But," Lercari added in a telephone interview with The Star, "I'm a sucker for a good teacher."

Potter recalls that Lercari called her soon after Potter had submitted her grant application and they talked for a good hour.

They were like-minded in what could happen at this 124-enrollment K-5 school.

"Music is a lifelong skill," Potter said. "I want to teach an appreciation of music that is holistic — give an experience that is eclectic and diverse.

"I definitely want the community and the parents to learn with them."

It's not that Lercari won't distribute the program into charter schools. When Music and the Brain took the program into New Orleans public schools, they went to a public school system that was reorganized almost entirely as charter schools after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Lercari started the program in the late 1990s, thriving on a partnership with the 42nd Street Development Corp., which rebuilt and revitalized New York City's Theater Row district.

The program's target audiences were the New York public schools, providing keyboards, curriculum and teacher training to help more students get a foundation in music and gain from all music's benefits in fueling creativity and tuning minds to learning language and math.

"Children are not afraid of the language of music," Lercari said. "So many studies show the brain improvements. It's not unlike learning a foreign language. It's something we should do from the womb."

Potter traveled to New York last summer for the Music and the Brain training and found herself alongside music teachers from New York City, plus a team that was going to take the program to France.

"I was just this little Midwesterner," Potter said.

But Hope Leadership Academy had "sold it really hard" that the music program could inspire many children in Kansas City, she said. "We wanted it here for the kids in this neighborhood."

Lercari said she expects she will get an opportunity to visit Hope Leadership Academy in the coming year because Music and the Brain is making plans to expand even more into Missouri.

The program will soon be partnering with 19 public schools in and around Ferguson, to bring its classes into the neighborhoods that were shaken by the violence and protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown.

When she gets to Hope Leadership Academy, she'll likely see eager children filing into the keyboard room, dutiful in keeping the privilege of playing music.

They go to keyboards that are not numbered, but rather given names of piano players and composers — Franz Liszt, Elton John, Fiona Apple, Herbie Hancock, Billy Joel, Dave Brubeck.

The children snap on earphones and the room is mostly silent as they work on their lesson songs, except for the light tapping of keys and the occasional humming of a child who may not even realize he's singing along.

"I can't wait to play," 8-year-old Mya Acklin said. She loves gospel music, she said, and her mother used to play the violin, but she does not have an instrument of her own at home.

"I learned to play a lot of songs on the keyboard," said Mya, whose sister Makayla also attends the school. And her mother loves to hear the news, she said.

"She was happy."

None of this is surprising to Lercari. And it's not because of what the research says — but what she has seen for herself with other music teachers in other classrooms.

"We see it," she said. "We see it daily. All I want to do is give it to as many schools as possible."

Even a charter school.


Information from: The Kansas City Star,

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Kansas City Star

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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