More Than Meets the Ears: Music unifies students at S-E-M

More Than Meets the Ears: Music unifies students at S-E-M

By Tyler Dahlgren

NCSA Communications Specialist

The Song of SEM

For a school to have a solid music program, Justin Bosak says, there must be a sturdy foundation in place.

Every good band, and every good choir, ensembles that win contests and raise eyebrows in the middle of a high school basketball game, have one thing in common.


When Bosack came to Sumner-Eddyville-Miller (SEM) Public School as music teacher in 2009, he set out to spark interest in the school’s program. An assistant basketball coach during his first year at SEM, Bosak started with conversations in the lobby and cafeteria.

“I wanted to make myself known and available to them,” Bosak said. “I wanted to try and get to know them, and take away that element of being scared, especially with the boys, to become involved in choir and band and those kinds of things.”

He wanted to generate interest throughout the entire student body.

Flash forward to the fall of 2017, and a top-notch, innovative music program is something the school in Sumner identifies closely, and proudly, with. The numbers are staggering, with 67 percent of high-school students involved in a music class. Include junior high kids, and that figure balloons to 79 percent.

Music at SEM is a beacon of inclusiveness, for students of every background.

What went into building a program of its caliber? That story goes beyond what meets the ears.


The First Verse

Bosak grew up with music, and how he fell in love with it is actually quite picturesque. From Crawford, NE, in the far-reaches of the state’s Panhandle, Bosak would often travel with his father to buffalo stew cookouts at nearby Fort Robinson State Park. He’d sing with his dad, who sang in the church and played the guitar.

The world of music is open for exploration, but there is no mastery. Admittedly a competitive person, that’s one of the reasons Bosak was hooked so quickly.

“It’s something that you can never stop learning,” he said. “It was always a challenge. Anytime you start getting really good at something, music can set you back a little bit when you look at that next step.”

That never-ending challenge of improvement, to endless lengths, appealed to Bosak, who started with piano lessons in second-grade and continued until he was singing solos at different events, including weddings, in high school. He majored in music in college.

“For me, math wasn’t fun, but music was fun, and if you can find a way to learn math through music, it’s a whole different ballgame,” said Bosak, who searched for ways to utilize his love for music when it came time to enter the professional world. “Somewhere around my sophomore or junior year (in college), I thought ‘What kind of a career in music could I get into and be happy?’ We took counselor tests and music education came up and I thought ‘Oh yeah, I could do that.’”

Bosak will heap all the praise onto the students at SEM, his administration and fellow teachers, but what he’s built in eight years at a small D-2 school in Central Nebraska is unique, and, given the sheer size of the community, particularly remarkable.

“Mr. Bosak has done amazing things with that program,” said Superintendent Kevin Finkey, who at times finds himself admiring the music teacher’s interactions with students. “To go in and watch him work with the kids is really special. He has the mentality that puts him in the perfect position for it.”


The Chorus of Culture

Bosak’s energy, according to Finkey, is contagious. Music students, whether they’re football players, cheerleaders or FBLA officers, haven’t been able to resist the music bug. It’s a school-wide movement, and it starts with its orchestrator.

“You’ve got somebody that lives music and it’s not just a job for him,” Finkey said. “It’s a large part of his life and he shares that when he brings it here.”

Bosak earned his master’s degree in counseling, and, for a couple of years, juggled roles as a counselor and music teacher, though he had to give up working with elementary students. The experience was great, but doing both jobs at the same time made it difficult to perform at the level he’d like.

“We had some discussions and it came to ‘If you had to make a choice, which one would you do?’,” Bosak said. “It took me about a week to think it over. In the end, I couldn’t see myself not teaching music at all. That would just kill me. As a matter of fact, it was killing me that I wasn’t teaching the lower elementary during that time.”

Bosak got right back to work, tweaking schedules so that he would be able to see the 9-12th grade choir and the 7-12th grade band on a daily basis. Junior High choir practiced on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

At SEM, band is a collaborative effort. The numbers don’t exist for it not to be. Seventh-graders play alongside seniors, a charming quirk to life in a small school.

“It’s tough, because we don’t have a lot of kids, and our kids are involved in so many different things,” Bosak said.

It’s a juggling act, for teachers and students alike.

“We, as teachers, parents, coaches, sponsors and activity organizers, have to be able to share the kids,” Bosak said. “We do pep band for all basketball and football games, and there are kids working the concessions, kids that are playing, kids on the dance team and cheerleaders. We have to be able to share those kids and we have to be able to compromise. It’s a team effort.”

The last thing staff at SEM wants to do is run a student ragged or come down on them hard for any miscommunications that inevitably take place throughout the course of a busy school year. “We’ve always tried to make the focus of whatever we are doing in the best interest of the kids,” Bosak said.

Nebraska’s teachers collect praise for being some of the best in the nation, and it’s their work ethic that helped garner that appreciation. In places like Sumner, Eddyville or Miller, students deserve a nod, too.

“A lot of these kids, and kids across our state, wake up hours before the first bell and do chores, or they go home and do chores,” Finkey said. “It’s a work ethic that puts them in the right frame as they move forward in their lives and on their way to becoming great individuals.”


From a Student’s Perspective

There have been awards and accolades, a collection growing by the year, but what really matters to Bosak is cultivating relationships, and igniting a potential passion.

“To see kids that really struggle in other areas, whether it’s math or if they struggle at home, to be able to bring them into music and see them smile and succeed, that’s the best part of what I get to do,” Bosak said. “Public schools are great because of their diversity and their students. I don’t teach just the upper level students and I don’t just teach the lower level students. We teach every kid a little different because every kid is a little different.

Freshman Aaron Hernandez is relatively short and plays the baritone saxophone, one of the largest instruments in a band. It’s not an ideal match, stature wise, but, given Hernandez’s smooth and natural talent, it’s a match made in heaven. Or a match made in Mr. Bosak’s state-of-the-art music room.

“Mr. Bosak is very funny, but he does make us work hard,” Hernandez, who could hardly reach the keys below on his instrument before finding an unconventional fix, said. “He does push us and inspire us to learn a lot.”

Junior Lindsey Dittmar, like Hernandez, has been in the band since fifth-grade, when SEM students select an instrument. Her list of activities is extensive, and might as well read “Everything”. Music, sports, FFA, FLBA, choir, cheer, etc. She’s one of the SEM Mustangs that makes the school come alive.

“I am a part of as much as I can be, and it does get hard to juggle everything, but I am getting pretty good at managing my time,” Dittmar said. “You get connected with everyone. It’s really cool to be able to see what everyone is good at and where their strong suits are.”

Dittmar went on to describe her music teacher.

“He is awesome,” she said. “He is really good about letting us try new things and making sure everyone is having fun in class. He switches things up and throws us in different places and really challenges us to be the best musicians we can be.”

Bosak has learned just as much from his students as they’ve learned from him.

“A certain percentage of our student body is Hispanic, and I’ve learned more Spanish over the last eight years as I did in my previous life,” Bosak said. “Being able to understand different cultures, being invited to quinceañeras, being able to connect with such a wide variety of different poverty and economic levels, that’s what is so interesting about public schools.”

The challenge, Bosak said, is to bring all those different kinds of kids, with all their different backgrounds, together when it comes time to perform.

“I think that’s what the community sees when they come to our concerts,” he said. “They think I’m a magician, but it’s really just putting them in the classroom and giving them the right instruction.”

The result is a sight to behold. A diverse school body in perfect symphony.

Music to Justin Bosak’s ears.

“They do it themselves,” he said. “They are just amazing kids.”