Sirenna Ascencio (left), Dante Gerbella and Jizelle Dominguez-Santos perform “Thriller” at Valle Lindo Elementary School. — Chadd Cady
By Christine Huard
 — In Adam Pezdek’s music class at Valle Lindo Elementary School, 25 sets of hands are tapping along as he counts out a beat —in English, then in Spanish, sometimes softly and other times in a full, robust voice.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight!” he calls out to them as they hit their desktops with “boomwhackers,” percussion instruments that looks like brightly colored plastic tubes of varying size. The pitch depends on its size. The students match his enthusiasm as they call out the numbers in return.

After a few minutes of practice, he takes the stance of a conductor and leads them in a tapped out version of “Ode to Joy.”

“Who wrote that?” he asks the class.

“Beethoven!” they shout back.

Pezdek asks the class to tell him a fact about the composer.

“He was deaf when he wrote that,” comes the answer.

The children at Valle Lindo are learning about beat, rhythm and notation — the foundations necessary to building an ensemble, reading music and playing an instrument. In nearby classrooms, and in schools throughout the district, students are practicing music, learning to dance and rehearsing plays thanks to an infusion of funding this year.

More than 60 visual and performing arts teachers were hired throughout the district this year in full- and part-time positions with money allocated in its Local Control Accountability Plan, or LCAP, which details how it spends state funding for the English language learners, low-income students and foster children in its classrooms. Trustees approved $5 million to bolster collaboration time for teachers this school year alone.

Expanding arts education has been a district focus since it developed its first LCAP in 2014, said district spokesman Anthony Millican. The push will continue through the following two school years.

The aim is to foster creativity and critical-thinking skills, but one result has been a boost in attendance. Educators say that even students who are harder to motivate are not only coming to school regularly but are excited to be there — and student say they’re having fun.

Chula Vista, with nearly 30,000 students at 45 schools, is the largest elementary school district in the state. Almost half its student population is disadvantaged, and about 35 percent are English learners. The expansion builds on successful partnerships the district has with the San Diego Youth Symphony and its Community Opus program, and VH1 Save the Music Foundation, which provides every school that employs a full-time music teacher to instruct during the school day with $30,000 of musical instruments.

The collaborative approach allows classroom teachers to leave their students in the hands of visual and performing arts teachers twice a week. Classroom teachers use the time to work on lesson plans, analyze their students’ work and brainstorm with each other while the children expand their creative horizons. The prep time has become particularly important to teachers since the roll out of the new, more rigorous state standards.

Some schools have partnered to share their new resources. The visual and performing arts teachers at Valle Lindo also teach at Eastlake Elementary School. Principal Eric Banatao said parents and students are excited about a return to arts.

“I get calls and emails that say, ‘Thank you, this has been the happiest my child has come home in three or four years,’” he said. “It’s reinvigorated our campus in terms of attendance.”

He said the students are also learning good social skills because they have to practice being a well-behaved audience for their peers who are performing.

Kajsa Alin, 11, is in sixth grade at Valle Lindo. She and her classmates were practicing the moves to a Michael Jackson classic.

“We’re dancing to ‘Thriller,’” she said. “It’s like a collaboration. We all cooperate in different forms. School is fun now.”

Eleven-year-old Gael Aguirre, also a sixth-grader, agreed.

“It’s a different experience for us,” he said. “We’re having more fun. We get to act and be ourselves, and I’m learning more about music.”

Pezdek, the music teacher, said the drills the children do with the boomwhacker — tapping out beats in different time, loudly, softly or not at all — are a fundamental part of learning music.

“Rhythm goes on whether you’re making sound or not making sound,” he said.

christine.huard@sduniontribune.com

San Diego Youth Symphony