Earlier this year, we began a series introducing you to the Washington, D.C. based music group The String Queens (TSQs), comprised of three members: Élise Cuffy, Kendall Isadore, and Dawn Johnson. All three women are known faces to the next generation of arts education students—they are the orchestra directors at various KIPP DC campuses.
To get a closer glimpse into the women of TSQs, today I want to introduce you to Kendall Isadore who plays the violin in the group. She also is the orchestra director at the KIPP DC Valor Academy, located in Ward 7.
I recently sat down with the musician for Q&A to get her thoughts on the current state of arts programs in schools and to get a glimpse on what it’s like working for the charter management organization KIPP.
Kendall, as the former Vice Principal at KIPP DC Northeast Academy and a current administrator and orchestra director at the KIPP DC Valor Academy, how do you envision the school’s music program five years from now?
I envision a music program that encompasses orchestra (strings), choir, and band beginning in fourth grade and continuing through to the 12th grade. In order to maintain a level of excellence for these programs, it is crucial that students can “opt-in” to the music program of their choice. Unfortunately, when students do not have choice in these matters, students are not as invested, which causes the quality of the music programs and performances to decrease and deteriorate.
As with athletics and academics, students need multiple at-bats and lots of practice to reach a level of mastery. Once students have a few years of playing under their belts, I envision the classes being differentiated based on their playing ability (beginning, intermediate, advanced) so that their teachers are able to meet students where they are. For students who are excelling at a high level, I foresee the elementary, middle and high schools offering elite/honors programs after school that include small group playing and solo preparation. The best music programs in the country operate this way, and I think if more schools moved in this direction, we would be able to produce stronger musicians. Finally, for students interested in pursuing an instrument in college, I believe we could foster partnerships with some of the nonprofit music programs in D.C. to allow these students to study privately.
What makes KIPP DC (Northeast Academy/Valor Academy) a special place to work?
The kids! Everything we do is for our students. They are full of life, joy, grit, and determination, eager to do whatever it takes to succeed in school and in life. Our students are excited about learning because we are able to attract the city’s best teachers and school leaders.
It’s also a great place to work because of the staff members! No matter what is happening at any given moment, I am comforted because at both schools, I have been surrounded by staff who care about me and always have my back. When we use our phrase “Team and Family,” we take it very seriously. We are truly family!
How has work with KIPP DC changed your perspective on charter schools?
I have only worked in public charter schools in my 10-year career working in schools. In the early part of my career, I didn’t understand the mechanics, politics, or policies of charter schools. Once I became a vice principal and certainly once I enrolled in the Education Policy and Administration program at GWU, I began to learn much more about the inner workings of charter schools. I am not partial to charters over district or private schools. I am in favor of any school that is relentless in educating our students and giving them a well-rounded experience. I am in favor of any school that puts students first.
In the future, I would love to see public district, public charter, and private schools (along with legislators) unite on what students should learn and how they should be taught so that everyone is on the same page. There are a lot of fallacies and misunderstandings out there about charter schools, but these cause more division than unity.
After all, they are all OUR students, regardless of race, economic background, or zip code. I hope one day we can all put our differences aside for the good and best interest of our students. They deserve it.
Let’s now go back to your education. While you studied biology in college, you have always had a passion for music. What words of advice do you have for students who are looking to further their arts education at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)?
Though I majored in biology, thinking I would be a surgeon one day, the passion behind my music just wouldn’t go away. I played in a few musicals at Howard University and was concertmaster of the Howard chamber orchestra for a while. To students considering HBCUs, I advise them to visit the campuses—go to the dorms, go to the cafeteria, sit in on a class or two, and attend homecoming if possible. I am currently a graduate student at George Washington University, which has been a drastically different experience from Howard. Non-HBCUs are still great to attend, but I suggest considering an HBCU for undergrad. HBCUs are truly still relevant and still needed. They carry with them a legacy of hope, faith, and global leadership that cannot be replicated. Our beloved HBCUs have been educating students of color for centuries and were established during a time where Blacks could not attend other universities. We need more students to choose them so that they can keep thriving. Consider an HBCU—you won’t regret it!
How let’s get to the fun part that everyone has been waiting for. As a professional musician who has had the honor of working with so many talented individuals, what was the experience like having collaborative performances with Ariana Grande, Andra Day, Common, Jennifer Hudson and Miley Cyrus?
March for Our Lives was an unforgettable experience! When musical director Adam Blackstone commissioned us to not only perform, but to also write the string arrangements, I was a little nervous. I was also excited to take on the task. TSQs have played numerous events over the years, but there’s something special about 200,000 plus people (regardless of race, creed, religion, or celebrity status) coming together in with a united focus and purpose. Ariana, Andra, Common, Jennifer, and Miley were warm and gracious toward us and the band, and they were all humbled to offer their voices and talents for such an awesome cause.
Kelsey Nelson is the manager for campaigns and publications at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.