Harvard Graduate School of Education Logo

Give back to HGSE and support the next generation of passionate educators and innovative leaders.

Summer 2014

Study Break: Janelle Bechdol

Janelle BechdolProgram: Special Studies
Tool for Change: Music and life stories in schools
Hometown: Lots of place, N.Y.

The hall pass. It's usually given to students in schools to show that they have permission to be out of the classroom. But for Janelle Bechdol, Ed.M.'14, hall pass means something entirely different: It's a music tour that has, literally, changed her life. Bechdol, a former American Idol contestant and college music major, cofounded the Hall Pass Tour with a DJ friend who was managing a hip-hop artist named ScienZe. ScienZe had just released a mix of songs called Hall Pass, where every track was about schools and learning. Bechdol was fresh from her Idol experience and had been asked by one of her mentors, Rick Dalton, Ed.M.'79, Ed.D.'88, founder of College for Every Student, if she would sing at a low-income middle school in upstate New York. While she was there, Dalton also wanted her to share her amazing journey from a struggling student in poor communities to Idol contestant and program manager on Ernst & Young's corporate social responsibility team. Bechdol went to the middle school expecting the kids to be mildly interested, but to her surprise, she was mobbed: Kids were dancing in the aisles and wanted to know more about her. She knew that this same combination — music + life stories + schools — could inspire other struggling students to pursue their dreams, take charge of their futures, and, hopefully, go on to college.

During Hall Pass concerts, you and ScienZe perform. Do the students? Yes. The kids are the opening act, but before they can perform, they have to tell the audience their goals and dreams.

Kids are interested because: We get it. We've lived their lives. We get why they might want to zone out or not understand why school matters.

Before Dalton, you had another mentor, Patty, who was a big influence. How? I met Patty through an internship program called INROADS that places high-performing minority college students in corporate and business settings. She helped me change from saying "if " I make it in music to "when" I make it in music. It was great to have an adult who wasn't a parent or a teacher say, "I believe."

At Ernst & Young, you: Helped start the College MAP project, which connects low-income college students to mentors. It's a way to provide kids across the country with their own Pattys.

Pop star idol when you were a kid: Madonna
Mariah Carey Whitney Houston
Alanis Morissette

Why? It was really my older sisters, who are all black, who wanted to make sure I knew what it was like to see someone who was biracial. They always played Mariah's music and music videos, and we'd dance in the mirror to her.

Your American Idol audition started with 15,000 singers at the Georgia Dome. Then what? That number got cut to 150. Then I went to Hollywood!

Why come to the Ed School? Although my work at Ernst & Young with College MAP was going well and the Hall Pass Tour was growing, questions started keeping me up at night. Why do kids need mentors? Why do some kids not see the connection between studying and life? I looked around and realized I needed to be here. Not just any school, but here.

Taking a class with Lecturer Marshall Ganz helped because: I was telling the class the story of my life that I thought people wanted to hear — I was on Idol, I found success — but Marshall pushed me to talk about the other part, about what it means to struggle between two worlds — black and white — about having to partially raise my teenage brother, about visiting family in the projects and then going to my fancy office next door in a nice shiny building.

After Harvard, you plan on: Making the Hall Pass model replicable and scalable. More schools, more kids, more artists.

Music: Motivates everyone.

Learn more about the Hall Pass tour and watch a video of Bechdol at the Ed School.