Changing Lives Through Music Education: Charles Lewis Introduces Ethos Music Center

By Megan Driscoll

Ethos Music Center music education

Charles Lewis, founder and executive director of Ethos Music Center, received his bachelor's degree from the University of Portland and spent two years in the Congo working for the Peace Corps. Upon his return, Mr. Lewis earned his master's degree in Public Policy at Harvard University, where he was one of the first Public Service Fellows. What inspired you to start Ethos Music Center? Was there a particular need in Portland schools that you identified?

Charles Lewis: I started up Ethos while I was a graduate student at Harvard. My master's thesis focused on how to create an innovative community-based music school from scratch. While I was working on it, I was surprised to hear about the tremendous budget cuts that destroyed music education programs in schools throughout the United States. Portland was hit especially hard and only had two music teachers for every 1,000 students. I knew I had to do something about this problem so when it came time to graduate, I flew back home to Portland, slept on a friend's couch for over a year and started up Ethos on my credit card. Twelve years later, Ethos is the largest music school in Oregon and reaches several thousand students every year with music education.

I started Ethos in order to make the benefits of a music education available to every child regardless of family income. I grew up in an extremely low income family, but every school that I attended had thriving music programs. I wanted to make sure that children from low and middle income families had the same opportunity to make music, but most importantly to receive the academic and behavioral benefits of a music-based education. Arts and music education is, unfortunately, being cut in public schools across the country due to a perception that it is expendable. Can you describe the benefits that your students gain from music education, both academic and otherwise?

CL: Academic studies prove that students who have a background in music-based education perform better on standardized tests, have fewer discipline referrals in school, have better attendance and do much better on their SATs than students without a background in music. Portland Public Schools and Ethos have conducted extensive studies on the impact of our programs and have found similarly impressive results from our low-income and underserved student populations. Unfortunately, many public schools don't realize the tremendous benefits of a music-based education and are quick to cut music classes when budgets get tight.

In addition to the proven benefits of music in the schools, we know that music can literally change students' lives for the better. For example, one of our Rural AmeriCorps members was teaching music in a tiny rural community in Eastern Oregon. One student in the school had been in and out of trouble for years and had even done six months in juvenile detention before he started taking music lessons with us. He latched on to music, studied diligently for two years and was just recently admitted into the Berklee College of Music, one of the nation's most respected music programs. I think it would be fair to say that this student's prospects would be much different without music in his life. What types of classes do you offer students, and how can local kids get involved?

CL: Ethos offers music classes on most instruments and styles ranging from traditional band to rock and hip hop. Ethos gives lessons on-site in our two north Portland buildings, including our headquarters and a 1910 historic firehouse. In addition, Ethos has a thriving program called Music Corps where we have started up over 150 after school programs directly in schools and community centers. Lastly, Ethos operates an AmeriCorps program that brings music education back to low income students in rural communities.

The best way to get involved is to check out our website, where you can sign up for lessons or get more information on starting up a program in your community.

music education Ethos Music Center Charles Lewis

Charles Lewis (center) with Ethos students and staff Ethos is the first and only music school in the United States that serves as its own AmeriCorps Service Site. Can you describe the AmeriCorps opportunities that are available at Ethos?

CL: Ethos' AmeriCorps program brings music education opportunities back to thousands of rural students every year. Through a contract with the Corporation for National and Community Service, we are able to recruit some of the best and brightest music teachers from around the country to serve as teachers in tiny rural communities.

We are currently recruiting ten members for next year, so please encourage your readers to visit if they know someone who might be interested in serving. It is an extremely innovative program that is helping to revitalize music and the arts in underserved rural communities. You were recently selected by the President's Commission on the Arts and Humanities as one of the nation's top 50 after school arts programs. Is this contest for all after school programs or just music programs? What will the benefits be for Ethos Music Center if you make it into the top 15 programs?

CL: Ethos was fortunate to have received this special award called the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award (NAHYP). Formerly called the Coming Up Taller Award, this award is given to the top after school music and arts programs in the United States.

In our 12 years of existence, we have received the award three times so far. It is the highest honor an after school music or arts program can receive, so we're very grateful for the recognition and support. If we make it into the top 15 programs this year (fingers crossed), we will be invited to the White House to receive an award and $10,000 from Michelle Obama. Since Ethos was organized in 1998, you've grown to serve 3,000 students in the Portland metro region and 2,000 in the surrounding rural areas. What factors contributed to your growth and where do you hope to be in the next five years?

CL: Unfortunately, I think the reason Ethos has grown so much is due in part to the tremendous need in the community. It is extremely difficult to reach some of the lowest income students with such limited funding, so we also need to recognize the personal sacrifices our staff members and teachers have made in order to make our programs financially and programmatically successful. I'm constantly amazed at how dedicated and committed our community is to making sure that every child has the opportunity to make music - it helps keep me inspired day to day.

In the next five years, I'm certain that we will have outposts in underserved communities throughout the United States. Over the past 12 years we have helped other organizations and individuals start up similar types of programs all around the United States, but I'm sure we'll be branching out with our own staff members and AmeriCorps members within the next five years. recently made a donation to Ethos Music Center's Paul DeLay Scholarship Fund. Can you tell our readers more about how this money will be used?

CL: Ethos' Paul DeLay Scholarship Fund helps provide scholarships for low-income youth. Named in honor of the late, great Paul DeLay, this fund helps even the educational playing field by making music accessible to every family regardless of income.'s very generous donation will be combined with others to help Ethos give over $50,000 worth of scholarships to youths every year.

In addition, because we have thousands of donated instruments from the community, Ethos is able to loan scholarship students instruments for free as long as they are taking lessons. We are extremely frugal, so every donation really helps us bring music education back to some of the most underserved students in our communities served. If any of your readers would like to make a contribution, they can visit our website to donate as well. Finally, I'd like to offer you the opportunity to add anything you'd like about music education and the Ethos Music Center.

CL: One very exciting thing about Ethos that we haven't discussed is our commitment to the environment. Over the past six years, Ethos has turned a boarded up, abandoned building in inner North Portland into one of the most eco-friendly music schools in the country. Some of the many features included in Ethos' green renovation include a 20 kilowatt solar panel system, five wind turbines, an eco-roof, community gardens, on-street bike parking, ultra efficient appliances and lighting, rainwater catchment cisterns for flushing toilets, etc. When Ethos' renovation is finished in a few months, it will be the first music school in the country to generate all of its electricity on-site with wind and solar power.

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