In 2011, Cale Patton started teaching at Dawes Elementary School, part of the Chicago Public Schools system. At that point, music consisted of music on a cart with no instruments and certainly no ensembles. She spent over a decade building a robust program that now includes an unconventional band program and an after-school rock band. She also spearheaded hands-on learning through performance opportunities and field trips. “An art-on-a-cart scenario is certainly not ideal,” Patton says. “However, the blank slate at Dawes along with a supportive administration allowed us to explore new ideas and to experiment with different approaches. Of course, there were failures and challenges along the way, but I never gave up hope and worked every day to connect with students and staff.”
After several years, music was finally given its own classroom! In 2020, Dawes was awarded Fine and Performing Arts School status by the district, due in part to the music program. Because of Patton’s commitment to innovation and her track record of pushing the artistic envelope, she was asked to build a music program from scratch at Gillespie Technology Magnet Cluster School in 2024. “Gillespie’s population is even more at-risk than Dawes with a student population that is 95% Black and majority low income. While it was sad to leave Dawes, I have discovered that my calling is to bring the light of music to students who need it the most. I look forward to working with Gillespie’s students and the community to build an innovative, technology-infused and culturally responsive music program.”
Funding her efforts at Dawes required networking and pursuing grants, which Patton says is a full-time job on top of teaching. She searches for grant sources online and pursues every opportunity possible. She has received funding, instruments and more from DonorsChoose, Save the Music (which did “save” her music program in 2017 by providing instruments to start a band program) and Give a Note Foundation (which helped with funds to purchase a sousaphone).
Patton also reached out to local community partners. “One of our greatest partnerships was with Ford City Mall, which donated craft supplies and costume materials, as well as welcomed our ensembles to perform. A highlight for my students and me include Christmas caroling and marching the mall corridors with the Dawes band for Mardi Gras,” she says.
According to Patton, music programs help those who need them the most. “I love to recruit diverse learners and students with behavior challenges because they need positive and encouraging outlets for expression,” she says.
A special tradition for the Dawes marching band is playing to send off Special Olympics athletes and coaches to the games. “The band and drumline would lead the athletes on a march through the halls of the school, outside and onto the bus. The school halls were lined with cheering and supportive students and staff, waving banners and signs of support,” Patton says.
Patton acknowledges that the Dawes band may not exhibit the traditional musical “excellence” of a wind ensemble, but “I am proud that they exhibit excellence in the areas of spirit, fun, community and inclusion. These skills will take the students much farther than a high ranking at contest,” she says.