HEFLIN — In Cleburne County Elementary School’s computer lab Thursday morning, first graders shook tambourines, maracas and banged together rhythm sticks while singing “instruments are fun,” with teacher Scott Johnson.

It was the first exposure some of them had had to playing music and singing, Johnson said, a May graduate of Jacksonville State University with a degree in vocal music education.  Johnson said young students have a hard time differentiating between speaking and singing, so he started them out learning to keep a rhythm and will progress from there.

He’s got six weeks to work at the elementary school before moving on to the next school.

“In six weeks, they’re not going to reap as much as I’d like them to,” Johnson said. “But I think it’s fantastic the children are getting this opportunity.”

The Cleburne County school system is taking its savings from outsourcing substitute teachers and staff and putting it toward a new fine arts program in the elementary schools. The school system contracted with Kelly Services to handle the hiring and scheduling of substitutes in April 2013.

Superintendent Claire Dryden said the savings, about $26,000 over the first semester, are being well spent bringing chorus, instrumental music and dance to the county’s elementary schools. The system also intends to add art to the program, as soon as it can find a teacher, she said.

“We want so badly for our kids to be exposed to those at an early age,” Dryden said.

The teachers will lead  six-week programs at each elementary school before rotating on to the next one, she said. Cleburne Elementary Principal Barbara Johnson said often the children don’t have any exposure to the musical arts this young.

“We’re so busy with reading and math,” she said.

The students from Pre-kindergarten through fourth grade are giving up 30 minutes from physical education once per week for chorus lessons, which began this month, the principal said. She said the students are really enjoying it.

But music education reaps benefits beyond being fun, said Emily Altman, a counselor at Pleasant Grove Elementary. Studies show that students exposed to arts education improve in academic achievement, she said. It’s been a long time since young students in Cleburne County had arts education in their elementary schools and even longer for music. When she went to school here 30 years ago, she had art in the classroom but couldn’t remember having music, Altman said.

The fourth, fifth and sixth graders at Pleasant Grove are currently learning how to play the flutophone from Davis Draper, a retired music teacher.

Draper, who taught for 27 years in Georgia and Alabama schools, said learning to play requires students to use many parts of their brains while coordinating finger movements, reading music and keeping time all while keeping an eye on their director.

All that coordination helps develop connections in the brain, vocal teacher Johnson said. In addition, he’s able to sneak in other lessons by introducing the students to music from other countries. The new teacher is introducing the students to Korean music and a little of Korean culture while he’s at it, he said.

But one of the best things about adding music to the schools’ offerings is how excited the students get about it, Draper said. For young children, who love hands-on activities, getting something in their hands that makes noise is an ideal activity, he said.

They don’t even realize they’re learning, teacher Johnson said.

“They just think they’re having fun,” he said.

Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545 or, in Heflin, 256-463-2872. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.