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Music and Mentorship: How an Austin Org Is Helping Foster Kids Survive the System

April 25, 2014
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Music and Mentorship: How an Austin Org Is Helping Foster Kids Survive the System
Karyn Scott left her job as a felony prosecutor in Austin, Texas, in 2000 and started a music program for foster kids shortly after. Kids in a New Groove
Guitar signed and decorated by Michael Franti for Kids in a New Groove. Kids in a New Groove
Josh (last name withheld) records an EP though the program. Kids in the Groove
A former Texas prosecutor saw firsthand how many foster kids got lost in a system that lacked the resources to help them. So she decided to reach out to them herself, one child at a time.

Working as a prosecutor in the juvenile justice system can be a daily lesson in despair, so when Karyn Scott left her job as a felony prosecutor in Austin, Texas, in 2000 she wanted to find some way to work with troubled youth, especially children in foster care. She had grown discouraged watching a parade of foster kids get shuffled through a burdened system, failing to receive the added help many needed to overcome upheaval, neglect and sometimes abuse.

The courts just don’t have the resources to keep up. There are some 400,000 kids in foster care in the United States and about 30,000 in Texas, according to federal and state agencies. About 59 percent eventually are reunited with a parent, legal caretaker or a family member, and only 22 percent are legally adopted, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The rest are left under court supervision or transferred to a variety of agencies, including, unfortunately for a few, juvenile correctional facilities. Some 10 percent are emancipated, given adult status, by the courts and 1 percent run away. During their time in foster care, most children live in family homes, while a small minority are placed in group homes. Many kids bounce in and out of the system.

Scott wanted to find a way to keep children from becoming unmoored as they traveled through the foster care system, a tempestuous journey that can be dispiriting and difficult. She also wanted to offer the courts more resources to address each kid’s particular needs. “They need a consistent friend in their life,” Scott says, especially since their lives are marked by so much volatility — they’re moved often from one care setting to another, disrupting their home and school routines.

Scott’s mission was to create a program that would help encourage bonds with a child or teenager that would last. In 2009, after exploring various programs targeting foster kids, she came up with the idea of using music to ease that connection. Austin, which touts itself in true Texas style as the “live music capital of the world,” seemed like the perfect spot to launch her new initiative: Kids in a New Groove (KING). In its early days, the program, which pairs music teacher-mentors with foster kids in one-on-one relationships, “grew organically,” says Scott, as word spread quickly among Austin’s abundance of music teachers. To date, hundreds of kids have graduated from KING, with 80 children in the program at any one time.

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KING uses both volunteer and paid teachers — the latter are those who have served with the program over the long haul. One veteran is Missy Hance, who studied music education at West Virginia University, before moving to Austin to teach music to both public- and private-school kids. She’s been teaching and mentoring KING students for more than four years. Working with foster care children requires her to be “more sensitive to their needs,” Hance says, since many of them are “down on themselves and do give up a lot easier.” It’s taught Hance a lot of patience, and led her to explore new methods of instruction and communication to better reach foster kids, many of whom may have been neglected or abused. She says music allows her students “to express emotions that they are not always able to express in words. It gives them a voice.”

The program uses a reward system that offers both stability and motivation. Each student earns stickers as they reach a series of curriculum goals set by their teacher. Achievements are continually reinforced: Five stickers earn a small reward, perhaps a T-shirt. Then, as students progress, the rewards grow larger, and if they complete the program, the ultimate reward — they get their own instrument. “I always push myself and try to get the child to get better,” says Hance. “Foster kids or not, theyʼre kids and they are just like any other kids.”

But the programʼs true success stems from its core element, says Scott — mentoring. KING emphasizes developing each teacherʼs mentoring skills and the cementing of a steady, personal connection between teacher and student. Over time, the kids learn to trust an adult, even though so many grown-ups have failed them in other areas of their lives. That “consistent friend in their life,” as Scott characterizes it, never deserts them, not when the child is adopted, moves on or comes of age and graduates from the program. One student, Anthony (his last name is withheld for privacy), learned to play the guitar during his stay in a group home. He was so enthusiastic that he began teaching his roommates how to play. Eventually Anthony, now 14, was placed in a rural home outside of Austin, but he continued to get lessons from his teacher via Skype.

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The act of learning an instrument may confer immeasurable benefits too. Research has shown that studying music can rewire the brain in ways that may affect the processing of emotion and self-awareness, which is “why this program works for kids who have been abused,” Scott says. A 2012 study by the National Endowment for the Arts showed socially and economically disadvantaged children and teenagers exposed to the arts did better both in academic and social development. Studies by the Society for Neuroscience released in 2013 also found that music education helped boost neural pathways in the parts of the brain associated with creativity and decision-making.

One of the programʼs notable graduates is Joshua Moore, a member of the Austin alternative pop band Scarecrow Birdy, which plays in the city’s clubs and, thanks to KING underwriting, recently recorded its first EP. As a child, Moore was in and out of foster care, living in various temporary homes and a shelter while his parents grappled with drug addiction and prison. Moore, a guitar player and songwriter, credits KING for helping him survive his childhood, and has performed at the program’s fundraisers to give back. “Music is not so much expression of life as it is and life as it should be. It’s life as you want it to be,” he told the newspaper Austin American-Statesman in 2012.

Austin’s music community has come out to support KINGʼs efforts wholeheartedly. The organization relies on donations — it holds an annual major fundraiser — to pay for kids’ lessons. A yearʼs worth of instruction for each KING student costs about $1,000. This yearʼs Music for the Soul fundraiser, which will take place on May 1, will headline Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, the founding members of the Dixie Chicks, who now perform as the Court Yard Hounds.

Further down the line, Scott is planning to expand KING’s mentoring-teaching model beyond its current geographic limits — for now, KING works primarily with children in Austin, and also with some in Houston and Dallas. But wherever KING’s future students may come from, Scott has the same aspiration for all of them: using long-term loving relationships to teach them skills like goal setting, accountability and perseverance that will help them navigate the foster care system and life thereafter.

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