Robert Vega | Five minutes with
People magazine Teacher of the Year talks arts education in Chicago schools.
When John Legend handed out five People magazine Teacher of the Year awards last month, Robert Vega was there on the red carpet smiling with the Grammy Award winner. As the lone music instructor at West Town’s Rauner College Prep, part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools, the Humboldt Park native is solely responsible for 350 kids—a whopping 60 students per class. “I’m regarded as the one-man band program,” says the 31-year-old, whom Mayor Emanuel recently invited onto the Cultural Plan’s education advisory panel. “One of the other winners, an engineering teacher, had his class designing and building limbs for a Third World country,” Vega says. “I was like, Uh, do I belong here?”
What put you over the top? Ninety-five percent of my students have never taken a music class. We’ll be learning “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and they’ve never heard it! So I’ll bring out some pop tunes. We’re learning the Game of Thrones theme right now. I try to make it fun.
Another hurdle: At Rauner, 86 percent of students are from low-income households. And my jazz band placed fifth at the Berklee College of Music’s jazz fest. Most of our competition there had been playing several years, had private instruction, own their own instruments.
What are your memories of Chicago Public Schools music education? Music wasn’t made available. It was always the first thing cut! My mother bounced me around from school to school; she wasn’t satisfied with the education. That’s one of the reasons I got into teaching: I wanted to do better for kids.
The new Cultural Plan emphasizes arts education. Only $1 million is slated in the 2013 budget to go toward all the plan’s initiatives. At the same time, the mayor is talking about closing 100 schools, including charters. Yeah, the math doesn’t sound like it adds up. That’s among the issues that need to be brought up with the [Cultural Plan] board. Finding money to fund these programs—that’s going to be an issue. Heaven forbid they cut a sports program! [Laughs]