East Side teacher wins "unsung hero" grant

Patricia Larkey
With a slim budget, a lot of band members, and some well-worn musical instruments, it takes a creative approach to keep the middle school band at St. Paul Public School's Farnsworth Aerospace going strong.
But it would seem Patricia Larkey, the band instructor, has it figured out.
She's taken to repairing band instruments herself, and teaching her students to do the same.
Recently, Larkey was awarded a $2,000 grant for her band instruction methods, where she teaches students how to find quality used band instruments.
Used instruments, she points out, can be bought at a small fraction of the cost of a new one -- for instance, a new tuba might cost between $3,500 and $8,500, but a used one can sometimes be found for under $1,000.
The grant, called Voya Unsung Heroes Grant for Innovative Teaching Program, comes from Voya Financial (formerly ING). 
Larkey was one of 100 teachers to win grants out of a national pool of over 1,000 applicants. She's one of only three teachers to win a grant in the state.
Though the grant is relatively small, she's able to use the money towards instrument repairs, and buying small parts and affordable used instruments.
And through the grant program, she also stands to win a much larger sum -- in mid-October, 100 finalists will compete for larger cash prizes of $5,000, $10,000 or $25,000 to be used towards their teaching ideas. 
Band kids means good grades
Farnsworth Middle School principal Hamilton Bell notes that students who participate in music programs at the school see more success academically.
"Our top performers ... over 80 percent of those are in the band," he said.
He attributed that, in part, to Larkey's teaching style. "She runs a tight ship," he says. "She demands students are on task and prompt."
Larkey has been teaching at the school for 16 years, and has spent 36 years in the St. Paul Public Schools system.
Right now, the Farnsworth middle school has over 300 kids in the band program, and another 60 students in orchestra. In all, about half of the school is in an instrumental program, Larkey says.
Going used
Generally, Larkey says, St. Paul Public Schools won't buy used instruments, because the repair costs can end up being overly spendy.
But she's able to buy them thanks to her resourcefulness and her relationships with various groups that help her get the instruments fixed cheaply.
Larkey got a grant from St. Paul Foundation to do instrument repairs herself a few years back. She can do basic things like repadding clarinets, and basic repairs on saxophones.
Now she's begun to teach students how to do the same.
The fix-it-yourself approach ties in with the school's engineering program, she says.
"If you look at an instrument and you know how it works, then you know how to fix it," she says. "It shows kids that you can maintain things and not throw them out when they don't work."
For repairs she can't do at the school, Larkey has teamed up with an instrument repairman who only charges for parts. And Larkey can also take percussion instruments to Kendall's Ace Hardware to get them fixed up. 
By going with used instruments, Larkey has helped the school get decked out with a pretty decent array of instruments. 
This autumn, most kids got their first choice of instruments. The school did, however, run out of trumpets and clarinets, so some kids had to settle for other instruments.
And this year, the school was able to get a saxophone in the hands of every student who wants to learn the instrument, Larkey adds.
Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.
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