A working mom of two children at Mary Farmar Elementary School, Celeste Monnette was recently sworn in as the newest trustee of the Governing Board for the Benicia Unified School District. With a family history of community service, she’s starting off her two-year term with a bang. She sits on three committees that focus on district policy, curriculum and wellness. Her first order of business is to spend time listening and learning from her colleagues, teachers and parents—but she comes to her role with a steady vision to strengthen music and art programs as an integral part of the school curriculum.
“Music is a universal language, and a powerful way to connect around shared and different experiences across people and cultures. And it's fun! I think children can benefit from music in a unique way as they are generally more open to differences, and are less inhibited in their expression and creativity,” she says. “A solid foundation of continued music education plays an important role in preparing our children to be better world citizens.”
Among Benicia schools, the middle and high school band programs are greatly successful, however there are no feeder programs at the elementary levels other than an extra-curricular band program that is not accessible to all children due to cost and transportation barriers. These gaps aren’t just in Benicia, they are across California, says Celeste—even in light of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) legislation passed in 2015 which mandates equitable access to music and art education, making them core subjects in our schools. “There is so much research out there that shows how art can make a significant difference in children’s cognitive development and learning,” says Celeste. “The intention is to help our children learn.”
One powerful way to do this, she believes, is to build a strong choir program in the district. Growing up in St. Helena, Celeste sang in the school choir from fourth grade, continuing through her college years. She says it changed her life. “Band and choir require the ultimate in teamwork, and the need to collaborate with large groups of people. You learn to carry your own voice, and the voice of the group—working together, taking instruction, hearing feedback, and modifying in order to create a final group performance.”
Celeste comes from a long line of social justice activists. Her father was a psychologist, her mother a social worker, and her grandparents were labor organizers. Her great-grandmother helped build settlement houses in impoverished neighborhoods in the late 1800s. “It’s part of my cultural background to be involved in community, and local governance is something I’ve wanted to do for some time. I feel that it’s my responsibility as a community member to be active, and to participate.”
Her family culture also drew her to the mental health field, and she’s earned a degree in psychology from Humboldt State University, as well as a master’s degree in Social Welfare from UC Berkeley. Today Celeste is a psychiatric social worker for Kaiser, where she does triage and crisis intervention. “I’m fascinated by human relationships and human behavior, and this work is a natural fit for me.”
For fun she collaborates, writes songs (which she describes as “Americana”), plays guitar, and is a vocalist with a trio called the BBs, who occasionally perform at First Street Café. She continues to attribute her creative skills and lifelong passion for the arts to her early days in the school choir.