Tucked away above Restaurant Paradis in Rosemary Beach is the small private school, Ohana Institute. Like other accredited private schools, Ohana Institute has a low teacher to student ratio and innovative teaching practices, but what makes the school so different is the infusion of Ohana Records, the music school within the school.
One of the requirements of Ohana Institute, which teaches fifth to twelfth grade, is that every student must join a band regardless of their experience with music. The director of the program, Jonathan Mitchell, said most of the students have never even touched an instrument before.
During their academic courses, students learn the lesson of teamwork in the music studio.
"We want to give students the freedom to create what they want," said Mitchell. "I'm their last resort, they're supposed to help each other."
Discovering a talent
Students meet with their bands twice a week in an impressive studio set-up. Mitchell listens and watches on the other side of the glass. Occasionally, he'll slide a black curtain across to leave the kids to their devices.
Inside the studio on a Wednesday afternoon is the not-yet-named band comprised of Jake Gritzmacher, lead guitar, Carlton Ragsdale, bassist and drummers, Hannah Burgtorf and Maddie Swainhart. The group ranges from ninth to eleventh grade. They're currently working on one cover song and one original song to perform at an end-of-the-year concert. The last song they practice for the afternoon is Nirvana's "In Bloom."
Most of the group found an untapped talent within the band.
"I learned I could actually play bass," Ragsdale said.
"I learned I do have some rhythm," Swainhart added modestly.
Even though the class is a requirement, it's clearly not viewed as tedious work.
"It gives us more chances to express ourselves," Gritzmacher said.
Whether students hope to pursue music after graduation, they will certainly have Mitchell's blessing. Even knowing first-hand how tough the industry can be, he's not going to hold any students back.
"I'm not going to tell them that they can't," he said. "You have to go after your dream."
'There's no school out there like this'
Before he came to Ohana in 2011, Mitchell, alongside his brothers, was in a band named Georgia. The band was signed to Atlantic Records in 2007.
Mitchell's first attempt at learning an instrument was not a successful one. Shortly after joining his middle school band and playing the trumpet, he left thinking the band experience was not for him, and he didn't change his mind until high school when he picked up a guitar. With that back story, Mitchell tries to help kids discover and develop their passion instead of putting them in a proverbial box.
"I don't want them to have boundaries," he said.
Mitchell always knew he wanted to work with kids and even went to school to be a teacher. This is his first gig as an instructor, but he doesn't want to be a typical teacher. Now, in his second year of teaching, Mitchell has noticed how quickly students pick up learning instruments. He is especially surprised to see how fearless his younger students are.
Now that the arts are rapidly losing funding, Mitchell believes it is the perfect time to invest in the creative endeavors of children, and he is proud of the program Ohana provides.
"There's no school out there like this," he said.
The in-depth music program teaches the students much more than chord changes and cover songs. Through music, children are learning to collaborate and cooperate with one another. And teachers see those same skills in the academic classes.
"It really drives creativity," said Jodi Dawson, a social studies teacher at the school. "Students are learning content through music and building teamwork skills by communicating with one another."
A loud future
If you want your child to have the Ohana experience without changing schools, Ohana Records offers an after-school band program, much like the school requirement, as well as private music lessons and summer camps.
The school is growing and soon won't be a well-kept secret of Rosemary Beach. The student body has more than doubled in size in the last year from 28 to 58.
"We're just getting started," Mitchell said. "This is just the beginning; we're gonna make a little bit of noise in the future."
Want to join?
To sign up for the after-school program, music lesson or summer music camps, contact Jonathan Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 708-2150. The first summer camp session begins June 10. For more information about the Ohana Records, visit www.ohanarecords.com.