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Can Glee Club Reduce High School Dropout Rates?

Maybe—if this choir teacher can keep his job.

| Thu Dec. 23, 2010 6:00 AM EST

Hankle finishes teaching around 4 p.m., collapsing his tall frame in a chair. Where did you learn how to be a teacher? I ask him then. The first person he mentions is his father, Johnnie Hankle Sr., a blue-collar worker who worked 16-hour days—when he wasn't laid off—and raised him and his brother alone on the South Side of Chicago.

And then there was Hankle's high school choir director, Kenneth Lenon. Back in high school, Hankle struggled as a student. He'd transferred from a private middle school that he was attending on a scholarship to a large, low-performing public school, and he felt socially excluded. "We wore uniforms in the Catholic school, and my father didn't have the money to build a basic wardrobe for me," he says. He was ridiculed for his unfashionable clothing; his English teacher, about to retire, seemed "bitter and mean." His grades declined. And then he joined the boys' choir.

"That's when I started to feel part of a community for the first time," Hankle says. "I played basketball, too, and it provided a sense of brotherhood. But choir appealed to a different, more peaceful side, which I really needed."

Hankle's choir teacher took his students on tours to college campuses. It was the first time Hankle had seriously considered college. "My father would talk about college, but until I saw it myself, it wasn't real," Hankle says.

By 2001, Hankle got a basketball scholarship to attend San Francisco State University, where he joined the university's Chamber Choir. The following year, the choir went to perform in Cuba, where a group of Cuban middle-school students was scheduled to sing with them in Havana. Midway to the concert, the Cuban students' bus broke down. "So the [Cuban students] walked for two hours to perform with us," Hankle recalls. "By the time I sang with them, I felt so connected to them. There was this sense of peace and purpose that I had never felt before." This is when Hankle decided to become a music teacher and help bring this sense of community and purpose to other kids growing up in low-income communities.

-Photos: Kristina Rizga-Photos: Kristina RizgaIt's 6 p.m. on a recent Thursday afternoon, and hundreds of parents and kids are filing into the Mission High auditorium for the holiday concert. I sit down near Rufina Gilette, an African American mom who says she chose Mission High for her daughter specifically because she heard that the school succeeds with black students. "I grew up with teachers talking back at me, disrespecting me, so this is important," Gilette tells me. "I can pop into any class, and I have cell phones for most teachers." Gilette, who was born and raised in San Francisco's Western Addition neighborhood and now works at Safeway, tells me that her 17-year-old daughter Colani loves singing in the choir.

Around 7 p.m., Hankle appears on stage in front of 100 teenagers dressed in matching khaki Mission High T-shirts. The choir leads with Christmas standards. Dozens of parents in the audience hold their phones up in the air, taking pictures, videotaping the show.

A pre-recorded melody with a catchy beat starts playing: It's a cover of "Find Your Love," a popular song by the hip-hop artist Drake. The girls sing confidently, louder than the boys. An Asian American boy in glasses patched with Scotch tape sits next to me, moving his shoulders to the beat and singing along to himself softly.

"Next, we'll perform a little bit of Spanglish," Hankle tells the audience. The chorus starts singing a Latin-inspired remake of "Stand by Me"—going back and forth between English and Spanish. Hankle breaks into a Latin dance move toward the end of the song. When the chorus finishes, the auditorium bursts into shouting, roaring applause.

The last two songs of the evening are a collaboration between the choir and the "Guitar Club," a free afterschool program for Mission High students run by the Dolores Park Church with the help of Mission High English teacher Tadd Scott, who volunteers his time there. The choir performs a cover of the popular Mexican folk song "La Bamba," followed by the Puerto Rican song "Feliz Navidad." I notice an African American mother dancing with her son in the aisle.

The next evening, Hankle and I sit down in the neighborhood café and talk about what what he's found works best with hard-to-reach kids.

Peer recommendations—be it joining the choir or going to college—are among the most effective tools, he says. "A lot of struggling students play sports, and if their buddies tell them, 'I'm in the choir and it's cool,' soon enough I'll get most of the team in here." The hardest thing to figure out, he adds, is: How many chances should he give to a disruptive student? "I'm still learning," he says. "All I really know is that I will try to show excellence and expect excellence and be consistent with everyone."

(Help Mission High School Choir survive budget cuts. You can donate through DonorsChoose.org.)

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