On a sunny afternoon at Cheremoya Avenue Elementary School in Hollywood, fourth- and fifth-graders rapped to a poem about slavery, accompanied by a ponytailed musician on an African drum.
"This isn't necessarily proper English," the musician said afterward, while helping ethnically diverse students analyze the poem. "But whenever we work with lyrics or poetry we can change things around a little bit, to create a bit of attitude ... and have some fun."
The unusual -- and fun -- lesson is part of a new program, Rock the Classroom, which uses music to help students master reading and writing and perform well on standardized tests.
"Music education has been shown to improve memory, test scores and overall performance in virtually all subjects," said Bradley Kesden, the program's executive director. "We link everything to the existing curriculum."
While the pilot program is based at Cheremoya and Hillcrest Drive Elementary School in Baldwin Hills, it actually began across town in Pacific Palisades -- not in a school board office but in a chavurah founded by three Kehillat Israel congregants 18 months ago.
The congregants were Kesden, a rock 'n' roll band leader, author and screenwriter; philanthropist Richard Foos, founder of Rhino Records and the Shout! Factory; and Adlai Wertman, a Wexner Heritage Foundation fellow who quit investment banking to head Chrysalis, a nonprofit that helps poor and homeless people find jobs, in 2001.
The three men became friends after discovering their daughters attended the same Hebrew school class two years ago: "We decided to create a structure to our relationship, and that structure was Judaism," Wertman said. Thus the friends founded a mini-chavurah, hiring a rabbi to conduct monthly study sessions for themselves and their families.
"We wanted to observe Shabbat, celebrate the holidays and do charitable work, tikkun olam, together in a Jewish context," Wertman said.
Rock the Classroom came about when Kesden, burned out by a difficult celebrity book- writing experience, expressed his desire to leave show business for the teaching profession.
Foos piped up that he'd wanted to start a free music program in the public schools, where arts education has languished since Proposition 13 cut funding in the 1970s. "We all looked at each other and Adlai said, 'Someone is going to have to quit their [day] job,'" Foos recalled.
Kesden immediately agreed: with advice from Foos and Wertman, he immersed himself in research to ensure Rock didn't infringe on existing programs and that it stood out among the approximately 30,000 nonprofits competing for funding in Los Angeles County.
"What we found is that due to President Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative and other standards, you could show up with the world's best music program, and teachers wouldn't have time to teach it," Kesden said. "But if we created something linked to the existing curriculum, we could get in."
After hiring a consultant and raising more than $40,000 from private sources, the philanthropists zeroed in on a Civil War unit in a Los Angeles Unified School District textbook. The first school to sign on was Cheremoya, where professional musicians began visiting classrooms weekly, with instruments such as guitars and ukuleles in tow.
"First we teach music basics in a fun, kinesthetic way," Kesden said of the program. "Eight kids shouting their names in a line demonstrates melody. Eight kids shouting the same names in falsetto behind them demonstrates harmony."
Students study simile and metaphor by performing an underground railroad song, "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd"; they learn about how slaves created the blues and write their own blues songs, following specific rhyme schemes and illustrating Civil War characters.
"Does anyone know why it's called 'the blues?'" a teacher recently asked Cheremoya students.
"Because blue is the color of depression," one girl replied.
In September, Rock the Classroom will expand to Crescent Heights Elementary; its founders have raised an additional $50,000 to help the project go even wider next year.
"We want the program in every third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classroom in L.A.," Wertman said.
Its already worked wonders at Cheremoya, according to principal Chris Stehr.
"There are students being engaged by Rock the Classroom who otherwise would be spending afternoons in the principal's office," he said. "This [is] ... what education is all about."
For more information about Rock the Classroom, call (310) 458-0822 or visit www.rocktheclassroom.org .