How Good Deeds and a Secret Helped West Athens Elementary School

LOS ANGELES (May 6, 2015) - Shhhhhh!
Keeping a secret is hard to do on any school campus, but the principal of West Athens Elementary School did so, surprising Aaron Stanley Monday during Teacher Appreciation Week. They provided him with a new room to teach music, along with instruments, that he never expected.
Stanley, who teaches fifth-grade at West Athens, provides students with free lessons after school in reading and writing music, as well as playing guitar and other instruments. He has led “Mr. Stanley’s Music Academy” at West Athens for a decade.
“Mr. Stanley does this on his own time without compensation, teaching music to the kids,” said Principal Ruth Castillo, who said the neighborhood offers children no other place to study music. “He plants the seed in their head to possibly continue playing and children have.
“They come back and assist with his guitar lessons and with the other kids. I see a maturity level when the children go from fourth grade into fifth grade. It transforms them. Music through the arts can help student achievement and rounds them out as an individual.”
For years, the students practiced in his classroom after the last school bell rang. They set up the instruments by lugging them out of closets and then put things back in storage afterward. This cut down their practice time.
Over the years, Stanley asked Principal Ruth Castillo for a separate space to conduct practice and to store instruments. For a school principal, the only thing harder than keeping a secret on campus is finding spare dollars in the school budget. Time after time, she found no extra dollars in the school’s budget for the program.
Then, a supervisor, Dr. Rosalinda Lugo, passed along an idea that Castillo along with Assistant Principal Jeffrey Clay, put into practice. The principal suggested the teacher to the “Helpful Honda” team, which represents Honda dealers of Southern California, as a candidate for “Teacher Appreciation Week.” Honda agreed to honor Stanley, but needed to shield him from the surprise.
Showing up in their light blue caps and polo shirts, the Honda members cleared out a storage room last weekend in the school’s auditorium. With the campus empty, they painted the walls white, added a border of blue musical notes and stacked the shelves with 15 baritone ukuleles, 15 glockenspiels and other instruments. They also set up a drum set, a conga drum, a bass guitar, an acoustic guitar and five keyboards, spending $5,000, in all.
On Monday morning, after having been told the school would be hosting visitors, Stanley prepared the students to perform “Ode to Joy,” one of classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s best-known works.
After the performance, Castillo asked Stanley to open the door to what had been a storage room. “I’m just shocked,” he said recalling his thoughts after seeing the room for the first time. “To have this kind of recognition is not something that I expected. I feel completely shocked.”
Standing in the new room, he said he will continue teaching music and has no plans to leave the school after nearly 20 years of service. As an elementary school student years ago, his mother could not afford to pay for guitar lessons and a teacher gave him free lessons. Music changed his life and he said that teaching students how to play instruments was his way of giving back.
“I never did this to be recognized,” he said, “but it’s always nice when people recognize what’s going on.”
As he spoke, his students sat on the auditorium stage—more than 20 minutes after the
program ended— still using their new instruments to play “Ode to Joy.”
Contact: Daryl Strickland (213) 241-6766
Photos: SoCal Honda (2), Patrice Marshall McKenzie