Hatch Elementary School is gaining national recognition as students march to the beat of their steel drums.
The Hatch Elementary School Steel Band and its music department were named one of the 2024 Elementary Excellence Award Recipients through the “Advocacy in Action” award by Music for All, for their “exceptional and inspirational strategies and programming in elementary school music programs.”
And Evan Jacobson, a lifelong Oak Parker and the founder of the Hatch Steel Band, is to thank for the program’s inception.
Jacobson came from not only a family of musicians but also a family of educators. His mother is a preschool teacher in Oak Park and his father, Paul Jacobson, was a music teacher at Lincoln Elementary school for over 30 years before retiring.
“They both raised me in a very musical house, playing a lot of instruments and singing, and having a value system that was based around arts and especially music,” Jacobson said.
By the time he got to Oak Park and River Forest High School, Jacobson played five instruments with trombone being his number one instrument.
Jacobson pursued a degree in music at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, double majoring in music education and jazz performance.
He made his way back to Oak Park in 2010 where he worked as a long-term substitute music teacher at Holmes Elementary School and eventually was hired at Hatch Elementary as the general music teacher for grades K- 5, where he has been for the last 14 years.
“It is kind of a blank slate in terms of how you want to approach being a music teacher, which is why I love it so much,” Jacobson said. “I have a very eclectic interest in music. I like all types of music, playing, listening or studying, whatever it may be. I am just passionate about all types of music.”
His passion piqued an interest in steel drums, which he found sitting unused for 15 years in the district’s warehouse.
Jacobson taught himself how to play the drums and worked on refurbishing the instruments before bringing them into the classroom.
But when he did, they were a hit.
“I quickly realized that the steelpans were the number one instrument that the kids loved in my class,” Jacobson said. “I caught the bug there.”
Jacobson created an after-school program, which quickly grew from six kids, doubling every year and by the fourth year, Jacobson said the program had approximately 80 students.
“It has been a journey for me,” Jacobson said. “It has been very exciting, but the main motivator has been seeing the joy it brings to the kids and to the community to play an instrument that is very unique and not common to music education settings, specifically at elementary schools — you don’t see steelpans very often.”
Out of the eight elementary schools in D97, Hatch is the only that uses steel pans as part of the curriculum. Jacobson cited a registry of steel bands across the country created by Brandon Haskett, a professor of music education at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan, and discovered Hatch is the only public elementary school in Illinois which has steel band programs.
Jacobson said he saw the positive experiences students were getting from working with steel drums and he was “bitten by the Pan Jumbie,” a phrase streaming from Trinidad and Tobago, where steelpans originate from, and he ran with it.
Currently, Hatch has four steelpan ensembles between the fifth and fourth graders. Jacobson, alongside his father, directs the fifth-grade ensembles.
“It is really wonderful. He was an inspiration for me to become a music teacher,” Jacobson said about working alongside his dad. “He does a lot of work for the program, and we really work together in a great way.”
Scott McDonnell and Matthew Kaiser direct the two fourth grade ensembles, which all meet once a week for rehearsal.
“I feel like the award speaks to a legacy of music and support for music in schools in Oak Park,” Jacobson said. “A program like this wouldn’t be able to exist if it weren’t housed in a school that really supports music in the way it does and in a music department overall in D97 that really flourishes.”
His commitment to the steelpan program and his students hasn’t stopped as Jacobson went back to school last year to receive his master’s degree in music with a steelpan emphasis from Northern Illinois University.
Jacobson hopes to continue to share his passion for the instrument through “Pioneers of Pan: A Process-Based Approach for Steel Band in the Classroom,” a book he co-authored with his father which describes how educators can develop programs as part of their music education curriculum.
“I have been using my book in the classroom now and I have been trying to connect the Hatch program to the Northern Illinois University program as much as possible,” he said.
On Wednesday, March 20 the Hatch Elementary steel band will be performing with the Northern Illinois University Steel Band at Percy Julian Middle School at 6 p.m. The performance is free to attend.