More than 1 million students drop out of school every year.
That averages out to 7,000 dropouts a day.
Or one dropout every 26 seconds.
For nearly a decade, Guitars Over Guns — or “GOGO” — has harnessed the power of music to fight those statistics.
So far, the organization has offered musical mentorship to more than 2,000 at-risk youths, empowering them to stay in school and off the streets while also helping them find their own voices, tell their own stories, and develop a wicked sound.
When I asked Dr. Chad Bernstein, GOGO’s founder, how it all began, he said, “Not well.”
A friend invited him to speak to a group of kids in juvenile detention about pursuing careers in music. But even before he got in front of the kids, he ran into some trouble: Bernstein’s band had their guitars confiscated at security.
“They said that the strings could be used to strangle us,” he explains.
Eventually Bernstein, his band, and their guitars got into the facility, where they found 40 kids waiting for them — arms crossed and eyes glazed over.
The more Bernstein said, the less the kids seemed to hear.
But when his band stopped talking and started to play, the audience’s body language changed. Arms uncrossed and heads began to nod.
Still, one kid was a trouble-maker. He yelled, “Na-na-nueve!” to get a rise out of Bernstein and guards went over to physically silence him.
But Bernstein intervened.
He asked the kid to sing the phrase again.
Then, while the kid kept singing, Bernstein’s drummer put a beat under him.
And then the horns came in.
And then the bass — with its lethal strings.
“The kids’ jaws were on the floor,” recalls Bernstein. “They were like, ‘How is this happening? What is this sorcery?’”
And that’s when GOGO was born.
Today, GOGO has an affiliation agreement with a school district in Miami and they’re working toward building an official relationship with schools in Chicago as well.
“We meet our students on their turf, in their mind-space — connecting with them through the music they love,” says Bernstein.
He doesn’t expect every kid to become a professional musician. What GOGO provides is an opportunity for students to try something new, apply themselves to a constructive creative project, and engage in self-exploration and self-expression.
GOGO’s trained musician-mentors also set expectations for academic growth, attendance, and behavior. And they hold programming after school, occupying kids during the hours when the juvenile crime rate peaks.
All this work gets built into a program that’s defined by a series of musical performances at concerts, studios, and art festivals. Not only do these performances create a context for hard work and a forum for positive reinforcement, but they also generate opportunities for students to explore their vulnerabilities.
Bernstein says that those same tools that kids use to investigate and manage their fears of performing also help them handle fears of things like bullying and judgment — fears that would otherwise hold them back from taking chances and carving out their own paths.
By overcoming those fears, Bernstein believes that these young people will be able to create lasting breaches in the school-to-prison pipeline.
GOGO sees GPA, attendance, and behavior improvements in more than 85% of its students.
And, while only 78% of Florida’s high school seniors graduate, that figure jumps up to 99% when students engage with GOGO.
A student who came to them at age 11 went on to attend the Berklee College of Music before becoming a music director and mentor for GOGO.
So Bernstein plans to keep expanding their operations. He’s targeting 20 sites in 2018 and 1,000 students per year by 2019.
His goal is to demonstrate that with mentorship and exposure to opportunities, these young people can achieve success for themselves and help empower the generation that follows them.
“The students we work with overcome a great deal of adversity at a very young age,” Bernstein says. “And there’s every reason to think that a student with that kind of moxie and that kind of grit could go on to become a performer — but also a leader — on the national stage.”