To the casual observer, it might look a bit like a spring concert at any private school. The students stand in rows on risers, wearing red vests atop white shirts. They sing a selection of eight songs ranging from classic jazz by Duke Ellington to an Irish immigrant work song.
But this isn’t any school, and these aren’t just any students. This is Krejci Academy, an alternative day school serving children and adolescents (K-12th grade) with autism and other developmental disabilities.
At young ages, these children have tasted failure. All of them have been unable to function at other schools. That’s why they are here in Naperville, Illinois, on this campus, with its yellow brick buildings grouped pleasantly under wide canopies of mature trees.
For the last 21 years, Scott Iseminger ’90 has considered it his job, as general music teacher and choir director, to set up each of these students for success. Those who can, sing. Those who can’t, sway to the music or play instruments. Those with advanced skills take noticeable pride in performing on the school Drum Team.
Says Scott, “When we get a new child from the public schools and I introduce myself to them, 95 percent of the time, their first words to me are, ‘I hate music.’” At this year-end concert, however, it’s evident that these students have learned more than notes, rhythms, and melodies—they’ve learned to appreciate a new language, and perhaps to give voice to feelings they might not have articulated otherwise through songs such as, “Hard Times,” or “We Will,” a song of hope written to commemorate 9/11.
Scott came to Krejci Academy after teaching in an inner-city school where many of the children had behavioral problems. “It was a real baptism by fire,” he says. But looking back, he realizes that the job prepared him for where he is now. “After a week of teaching here, I realized that I had never before in my life felt so positive about anything being God’s will for me."
Over the years, Scott has become a sought-after speaker at teaching workshops, and annually presents at the Illinois Music Educators Association. He’s written articles for the National Association for Music Education, and has an upcoming article written for music teachers addressing students with severe developmental disabilities.
“One of the things I tell other music teachers is something I learned at Wheaton College from Dr. Curtis Funk, who told us to always go from the known to the unknown.” Scott recommends precisely sequencing lesson plans, so that progress builds slowly but surely, boosting confidence.
Another lesson he relearns on a regular basis: never underestimate your students. One of the girls in his choir concert this year didn’t speak for two years. She began singing this year in music class. He thought, there’s no way she’ll learn all eight songs. But she sang portions of every song. “She rose to the challenge,” he says triumphantly.
More than 20 years ago, Scott remembers writing a paper in his senior year at Wheaton about his own philosophy of education. His paper began, “Every child is capable of learning music.” His work has proven that, with the right teacher, every child is also capable of loving music—and sometimes, a love for music changes lives.