DrumBus®: How a Mobile Classroom is Transforming the Oxnard School District

by Hanako Justice

Imagine you’re in fifth grade. It’s the period after lunch, and your mind is everywhere but in the classroom. You’re tempted to pull your phone out of your pocket, when you’re distracted by the roar of a school bus.

Your teacher says: “You’re all in for a treat.”

DrumBus_Line OutsideYou walk outside. The bus is red and says “DrumBus®” on top. A man greets your class at the door of the bus and motions for you all to line up. He chants: “Hello I’m Cam-er-on! Hello Cam-er-on” and signals us to chime in on “Hello Cam-er-on!”

“Hello, I’m DrumBus!”

“Hello, DrumBus!”

You climb aboard. The typical bus seating is replaced by long cushioned benches on either side, and African drums line the ground for each student. You are in another world, filled with curiosity and excitement.

Since 2008, the DrumBus® has been delivering transformative workshops for students, educators, and even corporations in California and Utah. The focus is to build community and camaraderie, strengthen teamwork skills, and provide social-emotional learning through an art form that can benefit anyone and transcend traditional barriers, such as language, music skills, and developmental challenges.

“[Drumming] creates a lot of self-confidence and teamwork,” says Mike Liston, founder of DrumBus®. “Teamwork is a part of life, and taking positive risks, like sharing what happened, fosters empathy.

Experiential activities like this immediately engage students and open the door to reaching and teaching them. And unique activities like drumming can be particularly helpful for kids who don’t connect with or have opportunities to engage in traditional sports.”

In the 2017-2018 school year, Mike partnered with Oxnard School District – located in Ventura County, roughly an hour north of Los Angeles (without traffic.) The area has high gang prevalence, poverty, and “a lot of trauma due to domestic violence, incarceration, and drug/alcohol abuse,” according to Director of Pupil Services Chris Ridge.

Serendipitously (or harmoniously), Chris is a passionate former percussionist who had been in a conundrum for some time prior to meeting Mike.

“I was talking to Martha Highfill, our music teacher on special assignment, who had brought UCLArts & Healing’s Beat the Odds® program to our district a couple years back. We were discussing the difficulties teachers were having in delivering the curriculum and got to joking around saying, ‘Gosh wouldn’t it be great if there was a bus set up with drums in the parking lot that wouldn’t disturb other classrooms and carried all the equipment so no one had to lug it around?’ Sure enough, a couple days later, Martha found out it already existed.”

DrumBus_Bus Closeup

Chris immediately reached out to Mike, and it didn’t take long to get the partnership rolling. Mike was then introduced to Ping Ho of UCLArts & Healing who trained both Mike and his lead California bus facilitator, Cameron Tummel, in Beat the Odds®: Social and Emotional Skill Building Delivered in a Framework of Drumming. She helped them consolidate the Beat the Odds® curriculum from eight to four weekly sessions and, in the 2017-2018 school year, they reached all 5th and 7th grade classrooms, including the 7th grade Opportunity Program (alternative education) classrooms. The rollout was such a success that the DrumBus® team was also asked to serve after-school programs as well as summer school programs for special needs, reaching a total of over 3,000 students in the first year.

The impact that the DrumBus® had on the students was clear.

“Every week they’d ask, ‘Are they coming this Friday?? Do we have the DrumBus® this week??’” said Linda Stevens, Opportunity Classroom teacher.

While the entire 5th and 7th grade received four-week sessions, Oxnard’s three middle school Opportunity Programs received DrumBus® sessions each Friday. The Opportunity Program is dedicated to help students with issues such as aggressive behavior, substance abuse history, and extreme defiance. Placed in a smaller and more controlled classroom environment, students get at least 30 days, and more if needed, to refocus their behaviors and improve their academic achievements.

“When you’re dealing with students who are struggling,” said Linda, “being fearless is the hardest thing. Adolescents and junior high kids have a hard time taking risks, especially in front of peers they want validation from. DrumBus® built that trust, a sense of community, so that these kids who have extreme difficulties, were being seen, heard, understood, and validated. That’s exactly what they need to succeed, and Mike and Cameron did exactly that.”

For the first time in her nine-year career as an Opportunity Teacher, Linda saw four of her students graduate eighth grade and attend promotion this year. “One student was with me the entire year; he had the choice to either join a gang and risk expulsion or stay with me. He stayed, and he graduated.”

Linda believes without doubt that a portion of the success these students had came from the DrumBus®, which established a sense of community and enabled students to shine in a different light. One student was West African and got to share her drumming culture with the group. Another typically non-compliant student became known as a leader and encourager.

81% of students agreed that the DrumBus® program helped them feel good about themselves, and 93% of staff agreed that the DrumBus® worked to make connections. Results from the CA Healthy Kids Survey are still underway.

“We are in the top gang neighborhood … we’re it,” says Martha Highfill, music teacher on special assignment. She dedicates a good portion of her time using Beat the Odds® with 3rd and 4th graders. “[Beat the Odds®] teaches affirmation and teamwork … the kids start to honestly listen to each other. When teachers see it, they see how beneficial it is.”

Cameron Tummel, the lead facilitator for the California DrumBus® who ran the Oxnard workshops, agrees:

“These kids are sitting side-by-side, with histories of gang conflict, as well as warring factions from family places of origin rooted in social and cultural disparities … the DrumBus® is the most important classroom. Everyone’s on a level playing field: they’re having fun, they’re all supporting each other … that is potentially transformative. It is a profound shift at the ground level of the community.”

On the DrumBus®:

Students do not need to speak English, and they can be non-verbal.

Students can have special needs and physical disabilities.

There is no age or ability requirement.

In an average 40 minute DrumBus® session, each student gets to lead and have a voice, through drumming and/or speaking, about 12 times. Their voice receives additional validation when echoed by the group.

Self-consciousness is reduced and teamwork is strengthened because the students are told that there is no wrong way to express themselves creatively.

Martha Highfill, who originally brought Beat the Odds® to Oxnard, feels like it’s a dream come true. She also wishes she saw it in more schools.

“Schools are going to want to know how this improves test scores. Because this produces unity, teamwork, empathy, and most importantly – joy, this improves safety. Joy coming to school creates a safe environment that is going to produce better learning.”

Continuing to make an impact, the DrumBus® will be providing the same services to Oxnard in the upcoming 2018-2019 school year.

If this article resonates with you, and you want to bring drumming to your community, feel free to contact:
Beat the Odds®
Contributing Writer: Hanako Justice, current graduate student in the dual MSW/MPH program at UCLA
Editor: Ping Ho,
Images: Mike Liston