University of Bridgeport (UB) alumna Melissa Salguero, who for the past seven years has taught music to children in the South Bronx who have so little—often not even a roof over their heads at night—has won the 2018 Grammy Music Educator of the Year Award for her ability to inspire young people with harmony and song.
Salguero ’15 won $20,000: $10,000 for herself and $10,000 for her school, P.S. 48 Joseph R. Drake Elementary School in New York, earlier this week. She is an alumna of UB’s School of Education, where she earned a master’s degree in music education.
“Melissa is one of the finest teachers I know. I was delighted when she chose to do her master’s degree in the music education program, and it’s been so gratifying to witness the recognition she’s received,” said Frank Martignetti, Salguero’s former adviser and director of the Graduate Program for Music Education. “I am proud to call her a colleague, friend, and former student.”
This is not Salguero’s first experience in the national spotlight.
In September 2014, she was called to the stage at the Ellen DesGeneres Show, where the daytime host surprised her with a stage full of instruments and a $50,000 check.
It was a deliriously happy ending to a harrowing ordeal for Salguero and her students. Months earlier, thieves had smashed their way into the music room at P.S. 48 and took off with saxophones, horns, flutes, drums, and other band instruments.
The school is located one of the poorest districts in New York (more than one in five students is homeless), and Salguero’s music classes and band rehearsals provide a creative outlet for kids under tremendous stress. The theft could have derailed the program, but Salguero was determined to use the crisis as a “lesson on staying positive.”
She went online to replace the instruments via a GoFundMe drive. Word of the fundraiser spread—families from the school pitched in and collected $2,600—and eventually made its way to Ellen, whose check enabled the school to replace all of the stolen instruments.
Fast forward a few years, and “it’s been a crazy ride,” said Salguero after the Grammy Awards.
“When I was on Ellen, I thought that was the peak of my career. ‘How in the world can I possibly top this?’ And then this Grammy thing happened. I have no idea what’s next.”
Since the Grammys on January 28, she says strangers have reached out with offers of support. One donor gave a fresh, new carpet—something that had been on one of Salguero’s GoFundMe wish list—for students to sit on when they play music. Someone else donated cork grease for trumpets and clarinets.
“It sounds silly, but that kind of gift takes weight off of my shoulders,” says Salguero, who says she makes it a point to give back to those who have helped her.
During the week leading up to the Grammy Awards, she invited teachers who had inspired her, including Martignetti and Debora Bauer. When Bauer taught Salguero fifth grade at Birdy Elementary School in Boca Raton, Florida, she coaxed the then-reticent little girl out of her shell.
“I was not so good at school or spelling. I had no confidence, but Mrs. Bauer was so kind, so caring, she really took me under her wing by giving me the opportunity to be a safety patrol officer in the halls,” Salguero recalled. “That really lit a passion in me to help others. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I just didn’t know what kind.”
She credits her parents for inspiring her love of music. “They gave me a Casio keyboard, and I ran those batteries dead!” she laughs. “I didn’t have music lessons; I figured it out on my own.” After hearing singer Lisa Loeb, she taught herself to play the guitar.
Eventually, Salguero moved to Manhattan, where “music is in the subways, everywhere,” and tried teaching. But even with a job at P.S. 48, she felt she needed a master’s degree. So she applied to UB, and commuted two hours each way to take evening classes while she worked during the day.
“The UB program was amazing because it connected me with music teachers,” says Salguero who has kept close working ties with Martignetti and other students and professors from UB. “Frank has invited me to multiple opportunities to help other teachers, and that’s very crucial to me. If it’s just me working with my students, my impact is limited. But if I can help other music teachers, if I can inspire them and their students, then that’s really far-reaching.”
Music, she adds, provides an especially rich opportunity to teach all sorts of lessons. It’s not unusual, for instance, for Salguero to incorporate science into her music lessons (she’s turned bananas into keyboards). Early morning band practices, which are scheduled an hour before classes start at P.S. 48, teach kids about “the value of working hard.” She’s brought her students to sing in Times Square—an opportunity to overcome fear, lift their voices, and be heard.
Her work has not gone unnoticed. In 2013, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg presented Salguero with the “Lincoln Center Teacher of the Year” award (Salguero brought took her students to the ceremony).
And then there’s collaboration. After being nominated her the Grammy Award, Salguero invited her students to help her record a Grammy video application inspired by the musical Hamilton.
“They were 110 percent invested,” she said. “I kept updating them when I got to the semi-finals and then the finals.”
And what did they do when she won?
“Oh, man!” she laughs. “It’s been crazy!”