SSG. Manuel R. Puentes is the first middle school in Texas and one of only 82 schools nationwide to join United Sound, a peer mentorship program that provides students with special needs musical performance experiences.
The school-based music club pairs advanced band members with new musicians to promote social involvement through shared ensemble experiences. The United Sound chapter at Puentes Middle has 12 student volunteers who teach four students with special needs how to play the instrument of their choice at a personally modified level.
“Music is for everyone,” said Salina Cobos, director of bands at Puentes Middle. “This program builds leaders and it creates a positive school culture. Our student-mentors are responsible for their own lesson plans, instruction, and modification of music. Both our mentors and new musicians have done an outstanding job all year long. It’s been a very positive experience all around.”
Eduardo Robles, an eighth-grade trumpet player, knew he was the perfect candidate for the program when it was announced at his school.
“I was really happy to be picked as a mentor,” Robles said. “My older sister has a disability, and when she was growing up I couldn’t help her very much. To be able to help someone else makes me feel very good.”
Robles was worried that training his peer would be challenging at first, but a few minutes into the first rehearsal he knew teaching his mentee, Camila Navarro, would be his favorite part of the day.
“We have a lot of fun and it’s not hard because Camila learns really fast,” he said. “She learns in her own special way. I know that she does not like to read her notes when they are in black and white so I color them for her. I always try to make her smile and feel comfortable. And, every time we finish practice, I give her a high-five and let her know how well she played.”
Mentors and mentees meet after school every Thursday to fine tune their skills and prepare for the big end-of-year performance.
The instructors, who are solely there to supervise, say they have seen how afterschool rehearsals have turned into lifelong friendships.
“The relationships that have been formed through this program are amazing,” Cobos said. “The students light up when they see each other, and sometimes they spend more time laughing than they do playing, but that is ok. They are friends!”
Parents have been very receptive to the program, and notice the benefits music education has had in their children.
“My daughter used to be very shy, but ever since she joined the program she is social, confident, she gets better grades in school, and she feels like she belongs,” said Judith Navarro, Camila’s mom. “Seeing her on stage showed us that she is capable of this and more. It truly is an incredible feeling.”
Aside from playing an instrument, Camila Navarro is also learning how to sing.
Special education teacher Isabella Moreno said students with special needs are capable of achieving so much.
“A lot of people think that our students are limited and that is not the case,” she said. “They have abilities that they can focus on and we have great students, parents, and teachers who are willing to support them.”