Livin’ On Prayers and Passion: A South Philly school makes music despite obstacles

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Photo by John Vettese

Located in a high-need section of South Philadelphia, the Andrew Jackson Public School had been without a music education program for thirty years.

That was, until the arrival of Chris Argerakis. He has since introduced drumsticks and guitar picks, rooting rock in Andrew Jackson’s curriculum.

Joining the teaching staff five years ago, Argerakis has acted to build a program to provide a practical music education. He does so in spite of a shoestring budget from the School District: $100 for the year.

“I could teach the kids out of a textbook or I could try to get them instruments. I went with what I could put in the kids’ hands,” he says. Though as budgets continue to be slashed, the program’s long-term future is uncertain.

A native of Northeast Philadelphia, Argerakis was educated in public schools before attending The University of the Arts, which he says was crucial to his development as a musician.

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Mural in the music hallway of Andrew Jackson School | Photo by John Vettese

After graduation, Argerakis moved to Los Angeles to score for films. He was an apprentice for two composers while finding independent work for cinema and theater. But after eight years, Argerakis returned to his hometown to pursue a graduate degree in music education from his old alma mater.

“Teaching had always been on the backburner,” he says, “I started on a whim. My neighbor overhead me practicing when I was 19 and asked if I could teach her daughter.”

After finishing grad school – during which the instrumentalist cemented his interest in musical instruction – Argerakis quickly found the post at Andrew Jackson and has been employed there ever since. And for teacher and students, ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade, these several years have been extremely valuable.

Although Argerakis preferred percussion and piano, he chose to form his class around guitar instruction: “I became relatively serious in graduate school about guitar because I knew it would be a major asset in the classroom. Because the class is designed around the kids being able to perform, [guitar education] is at the core of the curriculum.”

Since the school could not afford to provide instruments, Argerakis turned to online resources and started a fundraiser for his students. He was able to secure around 30 guitars – donated by individual vendors, nonprofits, and local companies.

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Acoustic guitar autographed by H.O.M.E. supporters | Photo by John Vettese

He says that he has since been able to provide his students with a good foundation in guitar playing, rooting them in a handful of chords and strum patterns.

“I tell them that I’m not out to make them virtuosos,” Argerakis points out. “I’m simply out to expose them to music.”

In the development of the program, Argerakis was fortunate to have the support of Andrew Jackson’s principle, Lisa Kaplan.

“As soon as I became principal, my collaboration with Chris began and we focused on music education,” Kaplan says. “Arts are the motivator for many kids. Programs like these increase focus and increase peer relations.”

After about a year of general music classes, Argerakis and Kaplan reacted to the enthusiasm of students and decided to form a band. It started as a small guitar ensemble with eight students – all acoustic and minimal vocals. “The kids asked if we could implement other instruments in the second year,” Argerakis says. “At first, I didn’t know how I would teach them. But I started with simple beats on the drums and chords on the keyboard.”

However, the teacher says the group truly took off in the fourth year: “Everything improved by leaps and bounds, the kids performed well and were dedicated.” The band at Andrew Jackson even became the subject of a ballet, Jackson Sounds, which was performed at the Wilma Theater by Ballet X, a local contemporary ballet group.

The current band consists of 11 students, who have adopted a new group name, “HOME.” The choice comes from the title of an Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros song – a tune the band has loved for a while.

Argerakis explains he has to consider skill set when choosing pieces for the group to play: “The songs are mostly rooted in open chords and usually have significant melodies that can be reproduced by our synthesizer. They also have to fit our vocalists’ range.”

As of late, the group has fallen in love with the indie folk band from Iceland, Of Monsters and Men. But along with these contemporary selections, Argerakis includes hits of an earlier generation, such as “Summer of ‘69” by Bryan Adams and “Sweet Child o’ Mine” by Guns N’Roses.

Argerakis’ classroom walls are full of photos, posters for HOME concerts, hanging guitars and a particularly relevant quote: “Remember that the level of achievement we have at anything is a reflection of how well we are able to focus on it.”

The band has taken this to heart. In order to perfect the repertoire, they’ve had about 125 rehearsals (and possibly more) this year alone.

In addition to being a teacher, however, Argerakis has also become a friend to students in need of a friendly voice and a patient ear.

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H.O.M.E. memorabilia hung on the practice space wall | Photo by John Vettese

Jasmine Yedra, band captain, explains that there is a high level of trust between students and teacher: “Mr. Argerakis and I are really close. I feel like I can tell him everything. He’s there for me educationally, but also personally.”

Argerakis says his students are often there early in the morning before the start of school, eager to follow him into the classroom and pick up the guitar or uncover the keyboard.

For the band members of “HOME,” the basement of Andrew Jackson is thus a safe space. But it is also one that allows them to be heard – as both individuals and a collective.

“We play as a unit,” Argerakis says as he consults his students about upcoming gigs. “I will not allow a person to sit out if they don’t want to. Take us or leave us.”

But it’s this space that will now be at risk. Even though Argerakis has so far been able to make ends meet and excel in his instruction, the teacher worries about the upcoming academic year due to school budget cuts. He confesses that his hands tremble every time he checks his email for fear of an undesirable notice from the district.

Principal Kaplan explains that the state of Philadelphia’s public schools is dire – and potentially destructive. She is not convinced she can actually open Andrew Jackson in the fall with the type of budget she has been allotted.

“We’ve tried so hard to create a wonderful environment, one that is engaging and artistic,” she says. “The budget cuts put this all at risks.”

Kaplan expects that with the minimizing of financial support, public schools like Andrew Jackson will take bigger hits than charter counterparts: “we tend to lose a lot more, and the general public is not aware how devastating it can be.”

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H.O.M.E.’s current setlist | Photo by John Vettese

Picketing against cuts, Argerakis argues that a music instruction program is essential for a well-rounded education – especially in a high-need, multicultural school such as Andrew Jackson.

“Many of the kids we have here haven’t found an academic area at which they will succeed,” he says. “Some people are just artistically minded, and that’s as every bit as important as academics.”

He thinks the general music program will be safe, but he’s not sure that the school will survive without its counselors, secretaries, and other staff who have lost employment at Andrew Jackson.

But even if his general instruction course remains and the school carries on, Argerakis will have no extra-curricular support from Andrew Jackson for “HOME.” He will work with the band for free.

Kaplan points out that people should also consider the larger implications of the citywide bare bones budget cutting: “Schools make neighborhoods viable, so we need to ask, what is the position of Philadelphia – to build neighborhoods or decimate them?”

This summer, Kaplan and Argerakis awaited June 30 fiscal deadline with strained nerves; unfortunately, their fears were confirmed, more staff members were let go and after-school programs will be entirely slashed.

But Kaplan says community members have rallied around the school, joining protests against the cuts. And Argerakis has found the summer prospects for the band encouraging: “HOME” gave a moving performance at the national convention for the American Federation of Teachers and will be playing the Little Kids Rock Convention in Atlantic City later this month as well.

Other music education programs – such as Philadelphia’s Rock to the Future – are also trying to garner more support to continue instruction for low-income youth. Rock to the Future will be holding a “Rally for Rock” fundraiser on August 24th to promote benefits to music education and maintain resources.

“Rock to the Future has shown in three years that with a music education, students improve academic performance and enhance self-confidence as well as social collaboration,” says Jessica Craft, Executive Director of Rock to the Future.

Although Rock to the Future won’t necessarily be affected by the state’s decisions, Craft knows the budget cuts will leave many students without music instruction, so she says Rock to the Future is working on mobile music workshops, which will go into schools to provide weekly instruction.

Still, Chris Argerakis tells his students at Andrew Jackson to enjoy their time together in the following months.

“This might be all we have,” he says.

To follow “HOME” of the Andrew Jackson School, visit the group’s Facebook page. To donate, click here.

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