JACKI LYDEN, host:

Now, in schools across the country, students are studying an unusual subject - mariachi, music that has long been a tradition of Mexican culture. In Los Angeles, Gloria Hillard visited one of many schools that are making music a key to keeping Latino students engaged and excelling. Here's her story.

GLORIA HILLARD: Every day after school under the bloom of the fluorescent lights of the Middleton Street auditorium in Los Angeles, they practice. Up first are the beginning mariachi students, distinguished by their matching knit shirts and well, absolute enthusiasm.

(Soundbite of mariachi music)

HILLARD: And then, the intermediate students take their place.

Unidentified Child: One, two, ready, go.

(Soundbite of mariachi music)

HILLARD: In embroidered jackets with silver buttons, these young musicians are accompanied by dancers. The girls wear muslin dresses with hand-painted flowers and the boys are in pale blue shirts with red ties and boots with taps on them. Thirteen-year-old George Conte(ph) is also wearing a huge smile.

Mr. GEORGE CONTE: When I'm dancing, I feel happy, glad.

HILLARD: The mariachi students in this elementary school auditorium range in age from eight to 16. The middle and high school students learned their chops here and continue their instruction in an after-school program.

This is a primarily first-generation Latino suburb of Los Angeles. Streets are marked by gang graffiti. The school's playground is a stone's throw from littered train tracks, carefully navigated by children and stray dogs.

Mr. JAVIER MIRANDA (Principal, Middleton Elementary School): Unfortunately, in this area, we still have a very high dropout rate - 50 percent.

HILLARD: That's Principal Javier Miranda who started the mariachi program eight years ago.

Mr. MIRANDA: So our expectation is that through music, our students will develop a bond with the school community and graduate from high school and from college.

HILLARD: Miranda says the mariachi music program is considered a privilege, and students must maintain excellent grades and attendance, even after leaving Middleton, to stay in the program. And he says, it appears to be working.

Mr. MIRANDA: Their academic achievement keeps on improving. Most of them are proficient or advanced in the state exam. We know that their self esteem and their academic performance is strengthened through music.

HILLARD: Lining the walls of the auditorium are the parents. One of them is Hilda Perez. She says mariachi represents hope for the future and a link with the past.

Ms. HILDA PEREZ: All the family came from Mexico, and these kids are born and raised here, so it's really important for us that they don't forget about the people that was in the past, you know, their ancestors.

(Soundbite of mariachi music)

HILLARD: Eleven-year-old Luis Zambrano is reminded of that every time he takes his place in the mariachi line.

Mr. LUIS ZAMBRANO: It makes me feel emotional and excited and makes me feel connected to my grandparents and my parents.

HILLARD: What's your dream?

Mr. ZAMBRANO: My dream is, I think, playing mariachi professionally.

HILLARD: Another violin player with her eyes on the future is nine-year-old Gabriella Sanchez, a petite girl with soulful eyes and silver earrings. Her hair is pulled back in a pony tail.

Ms. GABRIELLA SANCHEZ: Like maybe when we grow up, like we could come on shows of the TV.

HILLARD: TV may be a part of Gabriella's future, but for now, she'll have to settle for being on the radio.

(Soundbite of singing)

HILLARD: For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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