Music education would be going flat at some high-poverty Bay Area school systems, but some people just won't let that happen.

Through programs in South Bay, Peninsula and East Bay schools, they've found ways to ensure that students don't miss out on music education that their districts might otherwise have cut.

"Look at what schools in the affluent areas get," said Bill Nicolosi, director emeritus of the award-winning Alum Rock Jazz Program in East San Jose. "That's what we want."

A day before Nicolosi spoke, music teacher Michel Hardbarger packed a load of music for kindergartners at Willow Oaks School in Menlo Park -- singing, rhyming exercises and American and Mexican folk dancing.

"She's actually teaching them the concept of rhythm," said Kay Kleinerman, managing director of the Music in Schools program, "but they think it's all fun and games. First comes the beat and then rhythm. The two concepts will lead them to the progression of melody."

On the face of it, Nicolosi's jazz program and Kleinerman's basics seem light years apart, but they share the same mission: closing the music gap between rich and poor students, and maybe even the academic gap at the same time.

In the East Bay, the nonprofit Oakland Fund for the Arts is following a similar mandate, providing traditional and innovative music education since 1996. Recent offerings included an after-school bilingual, English-Spanish choir and therapeutic percussion classes for troubled or traumatized youngsters.

Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Education reported that more than 90 percent of public elementary and secondary school offered some degree of music education -- but it also found extreme disparities between high-poverty and low-poverty schools. As Nicolosi said, some schools are more equal than others when it comes to the availability of music teaching.

After directing the San Jose State band for a few years, native Midwesterner Nicolosi joined the music staff at the Alum Rock Union School District in 1970. Three years later, he and few other music teachers started the after-school jazz program.

"I saw all of these students, all of this talent, but they didn't have anywhere else to take it," he said. The teachers rounded up a room and instruments for a big-band-style jazz orchestra. "Let's see if anything happens."

What happened was a remarkable turnout that hasn't stopped. The jazz band sent hundreds of alumni to high school and college bands and launched some into professional careers as performers or music teachers.

"From here, a lot of opportunity followed," said Amy Dabalos, a San Jose jazz and R&B singer and 2000-03 jazz band alumna. She now coaches the band's singers. "Yes, you can say I found my voice here."

While wealthier districts have been able to save music education through private funding, poorer districts generally coped with budget cuts by eliminating or downsizing theirs.

Music teacher Michel Hardbarger teaches 3rd graders ukelele at Willow Elementary School Tuesday afternoon, April 29, 2014, in Menlo Park, Calif. (Karl
Music teacher Michel Hardbarger teaches 3rd graders ukelele at Willow Elementary School Tuesday afternoon, April 29, 2014, in Menlo Park, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Alum Rock is one of the few that bucked the trend, and it did so with a unique budgeting maneuver. In 1980, the district's teachers union and board of trustees agreed to guarantee one music teacher's position to the after-school jazz program. The money is divided between the band director and instrument coaches, most them jazz band alumni like Dabalos. Also, Alum Rock Unified remains one of the few in the state that offers substantial music instruction to all fourth- and fifth-grade students.

Essentially, the "institutionalized" jazz band gives younger music learners something to shoot for.

That's certainly the experience of Juan Carlos Rodriguez, 13, and Cat Nguyen, 14, who discussed the program as they took a break from rehearsal outside the band's studio at Mathson Middle School. Both are musically inclined, but they are from families that could not afford the advanced instruction they're receiving in the jazz band.

"I want to learn new forms of music and new instruments," said Juan Carlos, a trumpet player whose father works as a tree-trimmer. "I want to stay in music for a long time."

Cat's mother is a school aide, her father a construction worker.

"They were friends with a talented piano player, and he agreed to charge a little less to teach me," Cat said. In time, she moved into singing and the trombone, which she plays in the jazz band. "I'm thinking about a career in music."

Still, it takes donations to pay for student transportation to performances and repair of instruments. Fundraising netted only about $25,000 this year. Growing the band would cost more. Jazz band director Tim Spacek repeated what everyone trying to save music in poorer schools seems to know: The competition for philanthropic dollars is fierce.

"It's a thing you have to scratch at," he said, "and then you have so many other people picking at it, too!"

One save-the-music group that has succeeded in tapping philanthropy is the Music in the Schools Foundation on the Peninsula.

Initially a volunteer effort, the program in 1995 became the nonprofit Kleinerman runs today. A $100,000 donation from the Peery Foundation funds her position for two years.

A former "triple threat" who danced, sang and acted in Broadway musicals, Kleinerman went on to earn a doctorate in educational leadership from Mills College.

What distinguishes her program is that it teaches basic music to almost 1,500 young children in pre-kindergarten to fifth grade, at no cost to the school district or parents. Donations small and large pay most of the bill for instruction.

On a recent busy day at Willow Oaks school, Hardbarger began with a ukulele class for third-graders. She teaches on the fly, carting a large box filled with ukuleles from one class to another. Hardbarger and Kleinerman believe music should be taught early in childhood, before the fourth grade whenever possible.

"It's almost too late by then, the way their brains work," Hardbarger said. "In kindergarten, that's when they get the 'aha' moment."

Greek philosopher Plato said music gives "wings to the mind."

Kleinerman elaborated, saying that "learning music engages the whole brain."

"The brain is hard-wired to learn through music," she said, "and the complexity of music stimulates and helps to develop different cognitive functions. Hence the holistic educational value of music."

Or as Nicolosi put it, "Music builds better people!"

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767. Follow him at Twitter.com/JoeRodMercury.