By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA Daily News
05/30/2010 - PACOIMA — The blaring car horns, neglected alleys and towering freeway columns that surround Pacoima Middle School are nothing to sing about.
But in Classroom 75, tucked away in a back corner of this gritty campus, students are singing ... and dancing and twirling. In fact, they're grooving all the way to Canada for an international music competition this week.
Known as the Pacoima Singers, the group of 32 students belong to a long tradition of musical talent at the campus' Television, Theater and Performing Arts magnet, whose strong reputation draws students from well beyond Pacoima.
Inside Classroom 75, in a scene reminiscent of the hit television series "Glee," students practice intensely on numbers that
Anna Chavez rehearses with the Pacoima Singers Musical Theater Group at Pacoima Middle School Wednesday, May 26, 2010. (Andy Holzman/Staff Photographer)
blend choir, music, theater and dance.
"This is like a magical world ... the perfect place to be," said eighth-grader Tessa Debole, 14, taking a break during a recent rehearsal.
While the competition for solos can get tough, the group's founder and director, Scott Mandel, says that teamwork and discipline are key to the Pacoima Singers' long-term successful.
"In here, they are learning real-life skills - team-work, discipline and consequences," Mandel said.
"I am tough on them ... but that is because I never want them to settle for anything less than their best."
The show choir - a combination of choral singing and theater - has earned top honors in local, state and national contests over the last 17 years. They've performed for local and national officials, including then-first lady Hillary Clinton in 1997.
On Monday, the current class of Pacoima Singers will go note to note against their middle school peers from across the United States and Canada at the Heritage International Music Festival in Vancouver, British Columbia.
For students like Debole, who dreams of becoming a professional performer someday, the thrill of singing on stage and hearing an audience's applause is the highlight of her school day.
"All these feelings bubble up in my chest and I get nervous but the second the music starts it's like second nature ... so much fun."
Beyond the medals and stage experience, Pacoima's Singers are earning top grades. This year, the group boasts a collective grade point average of 3.65, even while many of them squeeze high-school level math and English classes into their schedules.
The academic excellence is no small feat at a campus that for more than a decade has struggled with low test scores and where last year only one in three students performed at grade level in math and English.
Mandel believes the show choir and his students' academic success are directly linked. The program director requires students to maintain a "B" average or better if they want to perform. If they fail a class, they are automatically banned from participating in any shows.
To help his students stay on track academically, even when competitions are near and daily after-school rehearsals take over, Mandel has set up a peer tutoring system, which builds teamwork on and off stage.
Eighth-grader Anna Chavez said it isn't uncommon to find students cramming a few pages of science or social studies homework in between rehearsals. If students see a classmate struggling they "help each other out."
"We become like a family," Chavez said.
School board member Nury Martinez said the Pacoima show choir is a great example of the successes that Los Angeles Unified can achieve as a district.
"It's programs like these that inspire students to love school and that support academic performance," Martinez said.
Julie Corallo, an LAUSD music specialist, said Pacoima's program also proves the value of an arts education.
"As a school district I think we need to provide these kinds of experiences to all students, to help even out the playing field," Corallo said.
"This allows us to even reach at-risk kids and motivate them to carry a violin instead of a weapon. ... If a kid is happy in school, they are going to do better."
The reputation of the Pacoima Singers has even motivated students from more affluent communities in the San Fernando Valley to apply for Pacoima Middle School's magnet.
Rhianna Wicken, a 13-year-old eighth-grader, could have attended schools with higher average test scores if she had stayed within Granada Hills, where she lives. But the teen said she saw a Pacoima Singers performance at a local street fair and urged her mom to enroll her in the magnet program.
Since she enrolled, she's been to Washington, D.C., to compete in a national show choir contest and this week she is packing for Canada.
Wicken said she feels proud to help sing the praises of the school and build a new reputation for this working-class community.
"I like to show that we're not just a school from the ghetto, if that's what they want to call our neighborhood," Wicken said. "But that we are actually a really good school."
The program often will attract multiple siblings from a single family for the musical theater boot camp.
Gisella Melendez, a Sylmar resident, said her teenage daughter, now in high school, thrived as a Pacoima Singer. Her 13-year-old son, currently an eighth-grader at Pacoima, is also enjoying his time performing with the group.
And Melendez said her youngest, who is in kindergarten, has already said she wants to be like her brother and sister and join the group.
"They are given an opportunity that they wouldn't get anywhere else... where they are traveling outside the city, state and even country... I don't know of any other program like it," Melendez said.
To run the Pacoima Singers, Mandel has to raise some $50,000 a year to pay for trips, competitions, materials and costumes.
In recent years fund-raising has become more of a necessity - and challenge - for Mandel, who does everything from arranging rummage sales to asking for corporate sponsorship to raise money for the singers.
Amid talk of even more budget cuts to local arts education programs, the 25-year veteran teacher said he has no intention of lowering the curtain on the Pacoima Singers.
"Some of my kids will go on to music careers but most won't," Mandel said. "But they all succeed in what they pursue after here... because it's here that they've learned they can succeed."