From searching for abandoned instruments to collaborating with community partners and foundations, Victoria Bigelow has made it her mission to bring music back to Flint students.

Bigelow, who works as an evaluation coordinator at the School of Education, began her work in Flint when she was a U-M postdoctoral scholar in 2014.

Back then, she was part of a U-M team tasked with creating educational and financial plans for Flint Community Schools to improve outcomes for students.

As she stayed in Flint to help staff implement recommended measures and create an outline for district improvement, Bigelow was asked if she was willing to create an arts plan for the district.

At the time, art and music offerings “had been cut to the bone,” said Bigelow, who at U-M oversees the education-related evaluations that the Center for Education Design, Evaluation and Research conducts in partnership with organizations like school districts, community partners, the School of Education and other U-M units.

Photo of Victoria Bigelow with a music book
Victoria Bigelow, an evaluation coordinator at the School of Education, uses her skills and passion to help connect Flint’s students to the art of music. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

The Flint district struggled with declining enrollment, and there were no funds available for music and arts programming essentials like instrument repairs, music, clay, paint or paper.

The task was a natural fit for Bigelow, who previously earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in music. She also had taught the subject at Marygrove College, where she gained experience in grant writing and developing partnerships to support arts programming.

“I said yes because I definitely wanted the kids in the district to have the arts,” she said. “I strongly believe that’s a critical part of a holistic education.”

Since then, Bigelow has used her skills and passion to help connect Flint’s students to the art of music.

She visited closed schools in the district to recover abandoned musical instruments that had been packed away in closets, sometimes trading them in to McCourt Music’s The Green Horn Project for funds or instruments in better condition.

To find more instruments for students, Bigelow helped secure several grants, including one with Koegel Meats, and a VH1 Save the Music Foundation partnership that provides grants to outfit each qualifying school with instruments like band kits or sets of violins. She also received a Disney Musicals in Schools grant, allowing Flint students to participate in school productions of “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.”

As the district’s volunteer arts coordinator, Bigelow is now partnering with the Flint Cultural Center to engage more district students in theater and music programming.

“I really believe in social justice and it’s a very important thing for me to fight for,” she said. “We don’t have to search for the arts in Ann Arbor, and kids have so many opportunities to learn to play, to sing. But in Flint, you have a whole school district of kids juxtaposed with a beautiful cultural center that they have not had access to and no access to programming during the day. It was important for me to try and change that.”

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Now, the Flint district has the minimum resources to restart band in every school, and students can participate in active performing ensembles. Thanks to a C.S. Mott Innovation grant, the district has a repair and supplies budget for its music program this year, and some arts supplies have been redistributed to the schools. The district still struggles to attract certified arts teachers to the district.

Recently, the district held a celebration in honor of their VH1 Save the Music Foundation partnership. VH1 representatives visited, and the students received shirts and other gifts from the grant provider, Alex and Ani.

Bigelow watched the students as they unpacked their gifted instruments and started to play. She said she just needs to look at the excitement that music brings to her students to see how critical it is to a child’s education.

“I just felt like my heart was going to burst.”