Extra funding to boost supplies and programs for students is music to any teacher’s ears.

But that’s especially sweet for Mara Goodvin, general music teacher at Ridgewood Elementary School in Rock Island, who’s raised $37,000 in private funding the past two years to create a unique outdoor music lab at her school in the southwest part of the city, 9607 14th St. West.

“Right after COVID hit, I was trying to find ways for kids, while they were at home, to experience music, create music and make music safely,” she said this week. “I came across a company through West Music for this outdoor music classroom.”

Mara Goodvin is starting her 30th year teaching music in the Rock Island-Milan School District (photos by Jonathan Turner).

In spring 2021, she started writing grants and since then has raised $37,000 for the Ridgewood outdoor music lab. That includes two $5,000 grants from the Rock Island-Milan Education Foundation (RIMEF) including one approved recently.

At end of last school year, Ridgewood had a hybrid of students in person versus still at home (70% in person), and by the very end they were all back in person.

“This is the first full year that we’re all back and not masked,” Goodvin said, noting this is her 30th year teaching in the district.

She got the first outdoor instruments installed this past spring. Phase one, there were three (drums, xylophone and the big contra-bass bars).

“The Rock Island Education Foundation was the first grant I received,” Goodvin said, noting she’s also been funded by Rock Island Community Foundation, Rauch Family Foundation, Doris & Victor Day Foundation, plus Rock Island Rotary, Rock Island Athletic Club and Music Association of Rock Island.

Ridgewood students try out some outdoor instruments after school Aug. 11, 2022.

The first set of outdoor instruments cost $18,000 (including installation), and at the end of last school year, three more instruments were added, and the newest one recently is a mushroom gong and another xylophone – bringing the total to nine.

Goodvin just got another $5,000 from RIMEF, for one more instrument – Pagoda bells, like you would see at a yoga studio. She’s getting bids now and once funds are allocated, she hopes to have them installed during the October break. The current school year started Aug. 3.

“I love our modified calendar,” Goodvin said. “We can decompress and get ready for the next quarter, and I think it’s good for the kids to have a more balanced calendar.”

At the start of the year, there is less review and catch-up with the balanced calendar (and shorter summer break than traditional schools).

Benefits of outdoor lab

“We have kids out there after school,” she said of the playful outdoor music. “You’ll see parents playing on it while they’re waiting to pick up. I’m told from neighborhood families, there are people playing it on weekends and at night. It’s a way to explore music and to create – and experience it in a non-traditional way.

“Music is the element that can be done whether you’re an active participant or an observer,” Goodvin said. “This is an opportunity to safely make music in the middle of a pandemic. That’s where the idea came from, but it’s a wonderful way for the kids and our community to experience music in a non-traditional way.”

Ridgewood students play on the drums after school on Aug. 11, 2022.

“You don’t have to be a Ridgewood student or anything like that,” she said, noting some of her peers at other schools want to bring their students to use it.”

The outdoor lab is unique to the QC area, Goodvin said. Her goal was to install 14 instruments.

“The foundations around the community made this project possible,” Goodvin said, noting no public school dollars were used.

“This would be a wonderful advantage to any school, but at the same time, classroom and what you’re doing 180 days a year is where your focus is,” she said. “This is a wonderful addition, above and beyond.”

The outdoor area is open to any age level.

“I have done a lot of instruction out there,” Goodvin said. “The new mushroom out there, the kids are amazed by. If you hit it correctly on the spot and put your hand near it, you feel the vibration coming off it without even touching it. I always say to our kids, how do instruments make noise? They vibrate.

“With the gong, they can absolutely experience that, more than just feeling their vocal cords when they’re talking,” she said. Ridgewood serves functional classes for special needs students in the district, and “they experience that music lab every day before and after school,” Goodvin said.

Instruments — including tall contrabass chimes — outside the entrance of Ridgewood Elementary, 9607 14th Street West, Rock Island.

“They’re out there performing on it every single day,” she said. Those kids function 3-5 years below their actual age.

“To make music independently on their own, with success, is a great thing to offer,” Goodvin said.

Every day, when she’s at school and sees kids experiencing the instruments, “it brings joy,” the teacher said.

PRIME supports classroom too

The PRIME (Promoting Rock Island Milan Education) grants have also funded Goodvin’s classroom instruments totaling $50,000 over the years. “My entire classroom upstairs is funded through grants. The Rock Island Education Foundation PRIME grants is an absolutely wonderful asset to our district.”

She has a wide variety of instruments in her classroom, that she wouldn’t have been able to get without the foundation. None of those existed when she got to Ridgewood seven years ago.

Instruments are a great way not only to expose kids to different styles of music, but other cultures around the world, Goodvin said.

A student plays on an outdoor xylophone after school Aug. 11, 2022.

She’s not teaching them to become percussionists when they grow up.

“I’m exposing them to all variety,” she said, noting students start playing traditional instruments in junior high. The kids learn about those instruments in her classes, with videos, and they see older students with the actual instruments.

Goodvin said she’d love to commission a composer to write a piece for the outdoor music lab, for an ensemble of 6th graders. There have been no vandalism concerns so far about the area.

“It’s a way they’re not getting themselves in trouble, they’re doing some creative play,” Goodvin said of kids. “It’s something they can experience outside of school hours.”

“They’re all just very unique and different,” she said of the instruments, a few of which are designed like a butterfly and flowers.

Helps whole community

“It’s great – the kids enjoy it,” said Ridgewood principal Joey Di Iulio. “Let’s go after it. It helps the whole community and that’s what we’re here for. The kids are taking care of it, too. If they see someone misuse it, they let us know.”

“It’s theirs and they want to use it appropriately. We talk about that with every class,” he said. “We’re extremely excited to have that. She’s adding pieces. She’s close to getting the rest of it, so we’re excited about that, too.”

The outdoor music lab at the school has been supported by $37,000 in community grants.

The foundation is vital to help supplement what schools can offer.

“It’s extremely important to have the foundation support the project,” Di Iulio said. “It truly has been a community project. We’re excited to be able to have it here. I think we’re one of the few schools from here to Indianapolis that has this type of project, so we’re excited to keep adding to it.”

RIMEF executive director Monta Ponsetto said Friday it’s fairly rare for a single teacher to earn a $5,000 grant, the most for a single project.

“What’s she’s done is more expansive than other projects,” she said of Goodvin, noting most grants are for a specific classroom project or program. Usually, the foundation gives teachers $1,500 individual grants, up to $3,000 for a department, and up to $5,000 for multiple schools or a larger program.

Most teacher grants ever

For this school year, this is the most PRIME grants the 36-year-old nonprofit has ever given out — $158,404 in 76 grants, to 93 teachers.

RIMEF has grown tremendously in 36 years: growing original assets from $5,317 in 1991 to nearly $3,700,000 today; compiling a database with over 6,600 names of alumni and supporters; and hosting two major programs – the PRIME Grants and the Austin Academic Achievement Awards, Ponsetto said.

A 2021-22 RIMEF grant supported a department/school program from Tara Niemeier and Mandi Stout, to buy picture books.

The foundation awarded $137,200 to 57 members of Rock Island’s Class of 2022, including Austin Academic Achievement Scholarships or RIMEF Scholarships.

Since 1986, over $1 million in PRIME Grants have been given by the RIMEF to teachers and schools of the Rock Island-Milan School District.

“This is not just a record amount that I believe is higher than any other district is awarding, but recognizes the work of our creative and dedicated teachers and staff who submitted PRIME Grant requests for the benefit of their students and schools,” Ponsetto said of the 2022-23 grants.

A 2021-22 grant went to teacher Cindy Arkebauer for her “Making a Mark With Makerspace” program.

Grants are made possible by donors and assistance from the Doris and Victor Day Foundation, Junior Board of Rock Island, the Rock Island Art Guild, and the Rauch Family I Foundation. Additional funds are also generated through Birdies for Charity contributions.

Goodvin commutes far to work

Mara Goodvin also is unusual at Ridgewood, since she has by far the longest commute — 62 miles each way from Iowa City. Her husband owns an insurance business in Iowa City. “I went to school there and never left,” she said.

“It’s not too insane,” Goodvin said of the hour commute, getting her to Ridgewood about 7:20 a.m. “I have an hour to think about my day, then I have an hour to detox at the end of the day before I got home to my children and family. I don’t know any different.” She’s usually home by 4:30 p.m.

Mara Goodvin with a Ridgewood student on Aug. 11, 2022.

She and her husband have children ages 21 and 25. They went to school in Iowa City.

“My husband got them up, got them dressed and took them to school,” she said. “I got the calls, ‘Mom, where are my shoes?’ I said, I’m in another state now. I was fortunate to have a husband who was always available to help.”

“I always wanted to be a music teacher,” Goodvin said. “My elementary music teacher inspired me and I had outstanding teachers,” she said, noting she was a French horn player through school.

“My junior high and high school band instructors were just very meaningful in my life,” Goodvin said. She started with trumpet in 5th grade, and switched to French horn in 7th grade, going on to get a performance scholarship at UI.

She grew up in Maquoketa (finishing high school there), and majored in elementary education and music ed at University of Iowa. Goodvin got her undergrad degree in 1993 and her master’s in ’97 from Iowa.

She student taught at Horace Mann School in Rock Island over a summer (when it was the first to switch to a modified calendar in the district), her senior year, and hadn’t found a job in Iowa City.

The Rock Island-Milan district offered her a full-time job that fall of 1993, when they needed a K-6 general music teacher for Thomas Jefferson and Ridgewood schools. She taught there for 11 years, then at Frances Willard for 12 years, and this is her 7th year back at Ridgewood.

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