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2024 Yamaha "40 Under 40" educator Jena Combs

Jena Combs

Director of Musical Activities
Flora High School
Flora, Illinois

During her second year at Flora High School, Director of Musical Activities Jena Combs completely revitalized the music program. She reintroduced choir, drama and music appreciation classes, started a rock and jazz bands, launched a beginner guitar and ukulele class (and added an intermediate class the following year) and made music appreciation dual credit. “Recognizing the need for more general and non-traditional music options, I aimed to cater to diverse student interests,” she explains. “This initiative resulted in a significant increase in enrollment. In just three years, we went from 24 students in one class — which accounts for less than 10% of the school population — to 92 students across eight music classes — over 25% of the school population.”

One of the more popular new offerings is the rock band, which Combs proposed and established as an alternative ensemble in response to student interest in drums and bass guitar. The eight students in the class play various instruments, fostering versatility. Despite some students being new to their instruments, they practice frequently outside of class. “The rock band has enthusiastically performed at multiple events, showcasing their rapid progress by learning and assembling a new song nearly every week,” Combs says. “The rock band has not only expanded musical offerings but also sparked genuine enthusiasm for learning and performing.”

Thanks to Combs’ efforts, Flora provides a dynamic space for each student to discover their potential and contribute to the music program’s reputation as a symbol of hard work and dedication. She credits the collective success of Flora’s music program on the exceptional dedication and hard work of her students. ”Their commitment to going above and beyond has shaped the program’s recognition for excellence and created a platform for students to shine and grow. Their unwavering passion contributes not only to individual achievements but also fosters a culture of collective success,” she says.

Combs presented a clinic on innovative approaches to starting and sustaining non-traditional classes at the Illinois Music Education Conference, where she emphasized the importance of design, teaching methods, and strategies for student recruitment and retention. “Recognizing the need for diversification in my district, I introduced courses addressing this gap, fostering inclusivity, creativity and self-expression. These classes not only enrich cognitive development but also open up diverse career options,” Combs says.

Teaching in a small, rural community, Combs has witnessed firsthand how these opportunities promote cultural awareness, musical diversity and enhance overall engagement and learning. She aims to guide educators in implementing such programs, making a positive impact regardless of school size or location.