Fulton schools boast largest music therapy program in the nation

“Music is the thing that can make the difference,” said Amber Weldon-Stephens, who has made a career of using music to help special-needs students in Fulton County.

Clayton County was the only school district in Georgia that offered music therapy when Weldon-Stephens, a 22-year-old University of Georgia graduate, finished her internship in 1990. She hoped to replicate in Fulton what existed in Clayton: two music therapists and an intern. In 1991, Fulton approved funding to start a music therapy program with Weldon-Stephens at the helm.

For the first five years of the program, she was Fulton’s only music therapist, traveling to 13 schools a week. Today, Fulton has 15 music therapists and four interns, making it the largest music therapy program in the nation. About 1,500 students across 73 Fulton schools participate in music therapy each week.

Roy Joyner plays a guitar while Ashton Hall, 9, right, and Tony Coleman, 9, left, listen intently during a music therapy session at Campbell Elementary School in Fairburn. Joyner works in several schools to help special-needs children through music therapy. (DAVID BARNES / SPECIAL)

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“Never did I have any kind of vision that we would get any bigger than hiring more than one other music therapist,” said Weldon-Stephens. “It does not look at all like I thought it was going to look.”

In Fulton, music therapists serve students with intellectual disabilities, autism, physical disabilities, communicative disorders and behavioral disorders. They lead students in song, playing instruments and dancing to develop students’ social behavior, motor skills, academic performance and musicality. A student may work on gripping objects, reading facial expressions and solving equations in a single session.

“We touch it all, that’s the joy,” said Weldon-Stephens. “We don’t land on any particular (therapeutic domain), we get to do all of them. Sweet!”

Co-workers at Weldon-Stephens’ home school, Sweet Apple Elementary, call her “the little engine that could.” Since founding Fulton’s program, she has become the program director, internship director and president-elect of the American Music Therapy Association. On Monday nights, she teaches at Kennesaw State University. She has twice been her school’s Teacher of the Year and still works with students.

“I still love singing with the kids,” she said. “I say all the time that I’m the most overeducated person who sits on the floor with a guitar.”

Roy Joyner joined FCS as a music therapist in 1998. He travels to four schools a week, guitar in hand, and serves about 130 special-needs children. He loves seeing his students light up when he arrives.

“I’m sure my dancing isn’t too good, but the kids don’t care,” said Joyner. “I’m just the guy bringing music to them.”

Joyner has created a long list of instructional songs over his 19 years in Fulton. Some student favorites are “Days of the Week,” sung to The Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week,” and “Bust a Mood,” rapped to the melody of Young MC’s “Bust a Move.” During “Bust a Mood,” Joyner shows pictures of faces on an iPad to students and asks them to match expressions with moods: “happy” to a smiling face, for example.

“Whatever it takes to reach them, that’s what I’m going to do,” said Joyner.

Students in music therapy sessions run the gamut of physical, emotional and cognitive spectrums. Physically, students may use a wheelchair and be under the full-time care of a physician. Emotionally, students may be schizophrenic or bipolar. Cognitively, a goal for a student might be to simply stay awake during instruction. Each student’s severity of need varies widely, which means no two classes are alike. Weldon-Stephens thinks that’s half the fun.

“Their little behaviors — the things they do and don’t do — they’re all such little pickles, and yet I love them,” she said.

The music therapists take notes on every student, every session. Each student has personalized goals that a team of music therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists and physical therapists help them achieve. Some schools also offer adapted physical education and art classes.

Three districts in Georgia, Fulton, Clayton and Atlanta Public Schools have a music therapist on staff, but Weldon-Stephens hopes more districts will adopt music therapy.

Fulton County Schools has groomed more than 90 interns since adding the internship program in 1998. Internship hours are required for a music therapy license and often for music therapy degree programs.

The uniqueness of special-needs students is why Fulton’s internship program is essential, Joyner said.

Noting that there is no substitute for experience, he said, “You can’t role play kids.”

Weldon-Stephens’ career as a music therapist has spanned almost three decades, and she’s seen a lot in that time. She’s been bitten, kicked and spat on. Once, a student even broke her jaw. But she says she wouldn’t do anything else.

“I still really want to keep doing it. I’m still impressed by what music does.”