Monmouth-Roseville High School Teacher Kevin Ferry is the 2017-18 IHSA Nominee For NFHS Heart of the Arts Award
Kevin Ferry (below right)
isn’t defined by his vision impairment, but rather by the unique vision he has developed in how to build a successful high school music program, and more importantly, to teach, coach and inspire his students.
“If you come into my music classroom,” said Ferry. “You will find that I am more of a coach than a teacher. I run my choir more like I am coaching a football team.”
Despite being legally blind from Juvenile Macular Degeneration, the Maquon, Illinois native enjoyed a well-rounded high school experience at Spoon River Valley High School in London Mills. Ferry, who essentially has no tunnel vision (with limited sight coming out of the side of his eyes), was active in both the arts (band, choir, musicals, plays, scholastic bowl) and athletics (football, basketball, track & field) during his high school career.
“I had a great high school experience because of my wonderful teachers,” said Ferry. “One of the best inadvertent compliments that I ever received was from my history teacher Bob Tasker, who literally forgot on every test that I needed a version with larger print. No one thought of me as or treated me any differently.”
With his other senses heightened, he adapted in everything that he did. A linemen in football, he looked to block the shadows in front of him, memorized band steps faster than his peers, caught a basketball by hearing the bounce pass hit the floor, and held sheet music inches from his face in one hand while gripping a trumpet in the other.
Ferry knew by his junior year of high school that he wanted to teach music as a career. He cites the impact his high school choir teacher Paula Helle and band director Fred Herink on him.
“I wanted to do what Paula and Fred did,” said Ferry. “I knew how much I was getting from them and I wanted to give kids that same experience. Music always came naturally to me and a job sitting at a computer all day wasn’t really an option. I could always sing and felt like that was the path to follow.”
Ferry initially believed that his calling was to teach music at the collegiate level. After earning his undergraduate degree in Education from Culver Stockton College (Canton, MO), where he again kept his schedule chock full of extracurriculars (band, choir, Delta Upsilon, Cheerleading), he headed to Illinois State University to pursue a Master’s Degree.
In addition to his studies, Kevin accepted a part-time job teaching choir at Bloomington Central Catholic High School, an experience that would change his outlook and plans.
Kevin immediately responded to teaching high school students and the students reciprocated. Despite being hired to teach two high school choir classes per week, with the administration’s blessing, his schedule quickly ballooned to teaching choir every day, along with different groups coming to work with him before and after school, on top of practicing with the band at lunch. During his two years at Central Catholic, the school’s music program placed 2nd and 3rd in the state in the IHSA Music Sweepstakes, which remain the only IHSA music trophies the school has won in its history.
“Kids feel really appreciated and wanted when they work with Kevin,” said Monmouth-Roseville teacher and speech coach Melissa Agar. “He is tenacious in recruitment. He is great at spotting talent, but everyone is welcome. If you are willing, he will find a spot for you and that acceptance is important for kids at this age.”
Ferry acknowledges that recruiting within his own hallways is a necessity.
“Every kid has to take English and Math and Science when they are in school, but not every kid has to take band or choir,” said Ferry. “Kids want so much to have structure, discipline and success in their lives. They gravitate to it. There is a place for everybody in our music program and my job is to find where they fit in and try to make them as successful as possible.”
The experience at Central Catholic established that Ferry belonged in a high school setting, and after finishing at ISU, he went closer to home when he accepted a position at Avon High School as a K-12 music teacher, while also assisting with the football and track & field programs.
His presence in the high school arts programs was again felt almost immediately. The school of roughly 120 students went from having 28 students in the choir in year one to winning an IHSA Music Sweepstakes Class D State Championship in year two. Local economic factors led to a steady decline in the high school enrollment, dropping to about 70 students in 2009, but the music program’s participation and success swelled. There were over 60 students in the choir by 2007, at which point the school had won three IHSA Music Sweepstakes state titles (2002, 2003, 2005) and finished as runner-up on three occasions (2004, 2006, 2007). Ferry also enjoyed great success in his duties coaching with the football and track & field teams, which were part in parcel to his success in music.
“Many of the kids know him and trust him from sports,” said Monmouth-Roseville marching band director Kyle Barshinger. “They know how hard he works and the energy he brings and that they have success when they work with him. Kids are willing to step outside their comfort zone and try things like choir or musicals because of his involvement. If you look in Kevin’s choir classes on a Friday, you might see 30 guys in football jerseys in there. I think he’s always been proud of that diversity.”
Ferry moved on to Monmouth-Roseville High School (approx. 500 students) in 2009 and the result was exactly what you expected. On day one, 63 students were split between two choir classes, while today he teaches four daily choir classes to 125+ students. In addition to being the junior high and high school choir directors, he oversees the school’s famed madrigal singers, treble singers and junior high madrigals just to name a few. He also found the time to earn his Master's Degree in Educational Leadership from Western Illinois University.
“He genuinely cares about his students and who they are as people,” said Cecilia Fasano, a Monmouth-Roseville grad who matriculated to the University of Notre Dame in 2016, where she plays trombone in the Band of the Fighting Irish and sings with the Notre Dame Liturgical Choir. “He communicates extremely effectively with people from all walks of life. He understands that different people need different types of inspiration and encouragement. He is incredibly patient, but also not afraid to tell people things that they might not want to hear.”
Some of that frankness was no doubt developed on the football field, a sport he stayed involved with at Monmouth-Roseville, while also coaching field events and his own daughter’s softball team. His ability to crossover has continued to pay dividends for his students.
“Before meeting Mr. Ferry, I was exclusively an athlete,” said 2011 Monmouth-Roseville grad Garren Randolph. “Mr. Ferry established the performing arts as the ‘cool’ thing to do at MRHS. He encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and try the performing arts. He believed in me enough to cast me in our madrigal and in our school’s spring musical, Grease. Without Mr. Ferry, I would have never been a part of any of this, and those two activities ended up being, by far, my favorite things that I participated in during high school.”
Not surprisingly, the school’s Vocal Music Program has now won five consecutive Class B IHSA Vocal Solo & Ensemble state titles. Additionally, they notched their first IHSA Music Sweepstakes trophy in 2013, taking third in Class B, which is recognized as one of the deepest classes in the IHSA competition.
“All the hard work, the road getting there is what I love,” said Ferry. “It really is about the kids. For them to get to wear the state t-shirts and medals now, or get to say in 40 years that they were among the best in the state, that is something that can never be taken away from them. We strive for perfection, but it doesn’t define me or what I do.”
That’s not the only thing that doesn’t define Kevin, as its now been over 1,000 words since we mentioned that he has a vision impairment. That is because if you ask him, the Kevin Ferry story isn’t one about overcoming insurmountable odds or obstacles, but rather simple adaptation.
“My visual impairment doesn’t define me,” said Ferry. “It’s not who I am. You adapt, you overcome. Anyone with a disability will tell you the same thing. You work around it.”
So what does define him?
When it comes to his students, it’s instilling passion and appreciation for the arts.
“My expectation is not to have a bunch of my students go on to be music teachers,” said Ferry. “What I hope is that when my students have kids, they want their own children to be a part of a band or a choir or a glee club, in part because of the experience they had here with me.”