A hotbed for the arts
With fresh approach, school reverses drop in enrollment
From 9 in the morning until 9 at night, the activity never stops at the South Shore Conservatory in Hingham.
Preschoolers run into the building in the early morning. Kindergarten classes run until 2:15. There is yoga for kindergarteners, followed by semiprivate recorder lessons, then Music Together classes for toddlers, a drumming and singing group, and Suzuki method music lessons.
And that’s just for the students younger than 9.
The number of classes reflects the growing enrollment, which increased 23 percent in the last three years to 2,700 students at the Hingham and Duxbury campuses, the conservatory says. Private instruction, group classes, movement workshops, and music ensembles are all on the rise.
According to conservatory officials, all the activity is a result of the “continuum’’ model. Implemented largely by Kathy Czerny, who became the conservatory’s president in 2006, the model consists of interconnected clusters of programs geared to specific age groups. The result is a cohesive learning track that enables students - from infants to the elderly - to take classes or join groups regardless of skill level.
“When we first started programming, we wanted [the students] to feel like they were a part of something larger than just coming in for a lesson and going home,’’ said Elaine Sorrentino, communications director and a kindergarten teacher at the conservatory.
The South Shore Conservatory was created when it branched off from the New England Conservatory in the 1960s. Initially, the staff focused on private instruction, and over time, more programs were added. But in 2006, enrollment was declining, and the group knew it had to do something to further invest their students in the programs.
Czerny arrived from the Music School in Providence, where enrollment quadrupled during her tenure as executive director. She set out to do the same at the conservatory, starting with the younger generation.
“We started thinking about how do we grow our base, how do we make sure families understand the need for a music and arts education for their children, and thinking about that we needed a stronger childhood program than we had,’’ Czerny said.
The Music Together class, which introduces toddlers and their parents to the arts, was created, bringing 200 new families into the conservatory. At that point, it was about next steps.
“There’s a gap between the 3-year-old and the 7-year-old that comes back,’’ said Czerny. “So we started thinking that musically, this is a lifelong engagement in the arts, and what does that mean? It means we want to take this 2-month-old child and make sure they have an opportunity to stay with music for life . . . That’s when we started to look at where are the gaps - if I’ve done this and learned this, where do I go next?’’
The continuum model was developed in 2008, designed to expand the younger “feeder’’ programs as well as provide a road map for future learning.
“We’re connecting the dots,’’ said Loma Jane Norris, director of private instruction. “This keeps you invested in the building, and is a new way of thinking in conservatory programming.’’
The innovative model and subsequent uptick in enrollment captured the attention of the National Guild for Community Arts Education, which visited the Hingham campus in mid-November.
In town for this year’s Conference for Community Arts Education, music educators from the guild also toured the Huntington Theatre, Institute of Contemporary Art and Boston Ballet.
The visit was exciting to the staff of the conservatory, which is one of 25 conservatories in Massachusetts and 430 nationally. “It really is affirming to see the work you do is recognized on a national level,’’ said Beth MacCloud, the conservatory’s director of performing arts.
According to Ken Cole, the guild’s associate director, the recognition was well-deserved.
“They are one of [the largest], if not the largest community school in New England, but I think in particular we went out to see them because they have had success in the last several years in increasing enrollment. During a financial downturn, that was very [impressive],’’ he said.
The model is inspired by how public education works, Cole said, and even though classes at the conservatory are not mandatory, the instructional map has people voluntarily coming back again and again.
“In institutes like this, there is a lot of coming and going. Some people can come and take piano lessons for 25 years, some try it for six months and pop out . . . [but] they have figured a way to structure their programmatic offerings to engage people over time.’’
Other music schools have adopted similar models and seen success.
“This approach to try to link classes, from early-childhood group instruction to private instruction, and provide this sort of sequence that people can progress through in a community arts school - that is unusual, and it’s something that’s working and providing a model for other organizations,’’ Cole said.
The other unique aspect is the collective spirit of the conservatory staff, Cole said, from those who have been on board for decades to the part-time music teacher offering private lessons two hours a week.
“Getting those folks invested in the organization and committed to the mission is a key to success in this work, and I believe that that’s what’s happening at the South Shore,’’ he said.
In addition to boosting growth, the new approach also helped foster a sense of community among students, as reflected in a survey two years ago that found those taking only lessons rating their experience as pretty good compared those who were immersed in more activities rating it as “excellent.’’
“We’re the cultural center in the two communities we’re based, but also for the entire South Shore,’’ Czerny said.
Still, staff members say a lot of work lies ahead. The Duxbury campus, for example, is looking to expand its activities.
According to Anne Katherine Smith, director for the Duxbury site, officials will focus mainly on making Duxbury a centerpiece in the community for specific aspects of music instruction.
“We’re doing research and being thoughtful,’’ she said.
More broadly, the conservatory wants to extend its outreach to less-fortunate members of the community, who don’t have transportation to the somewhat remote Hingham facilities or can’t afford classes, said Jean Morse Jones, vice chairwoman of the board of trustees.
The conservatory also hopes to undertake a capital campaign that would sustain outreach efforts for the foreseeable future.
That’s extremely important to the conservatory, where the fees run anywhere from $100 for a basic musicianship course for a year, to $1,428 for half-hour private instruction for a year with a conservatory master.
The Hingham campus happily threw open its doors to music educators from across the country last month, Jones said, because the conservatory considers sharing its formula for success paramount.
“This isn’t about being competitive,’’ she said. “It’s about keeping access to the arts.’’
Jessica Bartlett can be reached at email@example.com.