Ridgeview Charter Middle School Chorus Teacher Jesse Gilbert during a recent class. (Photos by Beth E. Concepción)

Ridgeview Charter Middle School Chorus Teacher Jesse Gilbert thoughtfully considered her eighth-grade students self-arranged in groups, still murmuring as class had just begun.

 “I’m going to move you around today,” Gilbert said to them as she started doing just that.

Breaking up cliques is just one of the ways Ridgeview teachers and staff are trying to further this year’s theme of “Ridgeview United” in their diverse environment.

Ridgeview is 50 percent Hispanic, 25 percent White, and 25 percent African American. The diversity is one of the many things the school has going for it.

“I sought this school out for my kids because I wanted them to go to school with people who don’t look like them,” said Brad Glenn, a Ridgeview alumnus whose daughter is in eighth grade there. “We are what everyone wishes they could create.”

Glenn is president of the Ridgeview Charter School Foundation and also is the chair of the newly created Ridgeview United committee.

“It was created to really take a deep dive into how we can unite our very diverse community in deeper, more meaningful ways than ever before,” he said.

One of the areas where this unity is on display is in the music program, consisting of chorus, orchestra and band.

Ridgeview stands out among its Fulton County public school peers for its student involvement in music. About 58 percent of Ridgeview students are involved in music.

“Our music participation is roughly double the average at many middle schools where their participation rate is about 30 percent,” said Principal Opie Blackwell, who has been at Ridgeview for more than five years.

Though that’s still high, the percentage is down from a whopping 70 percent of enrollment in pre-pandemic days.

“I think there is something special in these programs for the kids: relationships, leadership skills and obviously the music,” Blackwell said.

The programs also are a way for students to learn about each other through common interests, as they might not have much else in common.

“We’ve always had this diverse population,” Gilbert said. “But truthfully, I’ve seen a lot of division … They live in different parts of town. They have different experiences, go to different churches, but they all come here – it is everybody. We sing the same songs, and we perform the same concerts. It matters more which voices go well together than which personalities or socioeconomic levels.”

“We’re doing more than learning the music,” Blackwell said.

Ridgeview United is a deliberate choice of theme for the year ahead.

“This year we’re trying to acknowledge those barriers and those divisions and try to tear them down,” Gilbert said. “We’re trying to really bring the kids together more so than they have been.”

It’s clear that Ridgeview staff and parents are invested in the theme, but students are on board as well.

“I feel like Chorus has brought me closer with people I’ve never seen before,” said Yoel Biton who transferred to Ridgeview from Peachtree Middle School.

Tori Norman agreed. “This is the year for me to make new friends,” she said. “I would like to have more friends outside my friend group so that I can have options and people who are into different things.”

Summer Carr said, “I didn’t think I would make any new friends because everyone has their friend groups. But over time I started to realize that I have to go for it and talk to people.”

“I’m glad that we’re back in person now for two reasons: I want to make friends because I don’t want to be alone and because I’m a hands-on learner,” said Chace Mallory.

Addi Hall transferred to Ridgeview from Chamblee Middle School. “When I first joined Chorus, [Summer and I] really clicked because we were sitting near each other,” Hall said. “The setup that Mrs. Gilbert has made for us – in changing our seats a lot, making us meet new people and having more friends than we usually do – is really good and progressive for me. I didn’t have that many friends before and now I do.”

Progressive thinking is what earned Ridgeview the honor of being named a Georgia Lighthouse School to Watch in 2019. The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform recognized only 24 middle schools across the state with the honor.

The talents of the students will be on display at the Ridgeview United Music Festival, tentatively scheduled for Oct. 21 at Heritage Green in Sandy Springs.

Beth E. Concepción

Beth E. Concepción is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years of experience in print and broadcast media.