“I am the type of person who goes through life with sunshine and a glass half-full mentality,” Mrs. Esther Asibuo-Ramos told me during a brief lunch break amidst a full day of onboarding this August. If you have met Mrs. Asibuo, music teacher at Brilla College Prep Elementary, you’ll know that she radiates joy and enthusiasm for life and especially for her students and their families. I had the pleasure of sitting down to talk with her about her own formation, what motivates her, and the power of music.
Mrs. Asibuo-Ramos has been at Brilla since its founding in 2013. She started as a part-time catechist for El Camino, a voluntary enrichment program that teaches the Catholic faith to Brilla scholars after school. A professional opera singer, she immediately began incorporating music into her catechism lessons. “I made everything into a song,” she said. “It is neurologically proven that using songs helps with memory.” When an opening arose for a music teacher, Mrs. Valle, then the Director of Operations, immediately tapped Mrs. Asibuo for the position, and she has been teaching at Brilla ever since. When asked what has kept her at Brilla for these seven years, Mrs. Asibuo-Ramos says, “It is definitely the people. It’s my kids, the families, and the amazing colleagues… I have never [before] worked in an organization where the team was so close, so genuine, and so willing to make sure that everyone succeeds.”
The virtues that Brilla strives to impart in its scholars, wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control, immediately resonated with her because they are what she learned from her parents and community as a child. “I am a native of Ghana, so I have the whole African tradition behind me, but I grew up in the South with a strong Negro spiritual hymn tradition,” she says. The formation that she received growing up had an indelible impact on her and gave her strength through life’s difficulties. At one point she found herself in the U.S. by herself without any family, but she leaned on the values and virtues she received growing up. “When I was wondering how I was going to eat or sleep, all those songs and hymns from my childhood came back to me,” she said. Now she uses her experience to empathize with her own students’ challenges and model the values that give her strength.
Mrs. Asibuo-Ramos is a strong believer in the power of music, and she has the scientific research to back it up. “Some people think of music as being good just for aesthetics, but I go back to the science,” she says. “It has been clinically proven that babies and toddlers who were given a strong musical foundation end up being more productive in school and reach higher heights academically. That’s proven.” She lamented that many public schools cut music education first when the budget gets tight. Indeed, a recent report that analyzed data from the NYC DOE found that 55% of NYC public schools don’t have a music educator on staff. At Brilla, music is integral to our holistic education. “If we want students who, in the Brilla mission, are successful in high school, college, and beyond, the arts are a vital part of that, and especially music because it has attributes that help even those learners that have difficulties with other subjects,” explains Asibuo.
Teaching music became more challenging when the pandemic hit because singing and playing instruments through Zoom causes audio feedback. Mrs. Asibuo-Ramos responded to the challenge with her typical optimism. “I’ve always taught my kids to be ready for whatever comes to them,” she explains. “I tell them, ‘you can make music anywhere. Music is not just in the classroom with Mrs. Asibuo. You can make music in the street, at home, anywhere. Yes, it is going to be different, but it’s not hard. It’s just new.” She incorporated technology into her lessons and won a grant for a prestigious program that not only facilitated online music education, but aligned with our character curriculum.
Another challenge during the pandemic was parent engagement, a hallmark of the Brilla way. “I definitely believe that parents are the first educators of their students,” says Mrs. Asibuo-Ramos. Last year, just as in previous years, she went out of her way to contact every single parent to talk to them about their child, share victories, tackle challenges, and build a learning partnership. “You have to help them see their child as great and help enable their child to be great,” she explains. “You can’t honor the dignity of our students without honoring the dignity of their parents.”
This year, Brilla begins its school year fully in person, which brings great joy along with new challenges. Mrs. Asibuo-Ramos’ message for the community during this time is one we would all do well to heed: “Be flexible and fabulous. Don’t worry about comparing previous years to this year and this experience, but walk into this year with a renewed sense of purpose and patience and remembering to show everyone grace in boatfuls. We are all going to make mistakes. We are charting this path together. We are not alone.”
About the Author: Alexandra Cohill is Chief of Staff of the Brilla Schools Network. In her role, she works with the Executive Director in overseeing the development and expansion of the network. Prior to joining the Seton team, Alexandra was a project manager at Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. She also spent several years teaching at two first-year classical charter schools, where she fell in love with classical curriculum and pedagogy. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in politics with a concentration in Spanish at the University of Dallas. In her free time, she enjoys baking, hiking, and watercolor painting.