Eight middle-schoolers are setting a new tone for the Polk County School District.
Students at McLaughlin Middle School and Fine Arts Academy this year joined the first mariachi band class offered in the county -- and possibly the state.
Although school-based mariachi programs have exploded nationwide, they remain uncommon in Florida.
The Polk seventh-and eighth-graders practice the Mexican folk music during their elective class three times a week. They sing and play the violins, acoustic guitar, trumpet and Mexican vihuela [a five-string guitar].
"They're not just songs to enjoy; they're stories," trumpet player Jacob Keiling, 14, said. "They tell something about the [culture]."
School officials launched the mariachi program to reach out to the growing Hispanic population in the area, said Madalyn Walton, McLaughlin's fine arts coordinator.
"We felt this would be another way to have a buy-in with the parents," she said. "As they come see their children perform, you see them get more involved" in the school.
More than 150 of the academy's roughly 800 students are Hispanic, according to school officials.
Mack Ruiz, a violinist with Orlando's Mariachi Cobre, said programs are popular in areas with high Mexican concentrations, including Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. The McLaughlin program is the first he has heard of in Florida.
Ruiz, who serves on the National Council for Mariachi Educators, said, "Polk County is one of the first to catch on."
Ruiz's mariachi group, which has performed at Epcot for about 26 years, helped the school build a curriculum.
Erik Castillo, 14, who plays the acoustic guitar, said the band brought him closer to his parents and grandparents, who are originally from the Mexican state of Veracruz. The eighth-grader said they share stories about the country's history.
"I'm glad of what I'm doing," said Erik, who also plays other instruments, including the violin and piano. "It never came to me that it [mariachi] could affect me like that."
About half of the mariachi band members are Hispanic, said Gian Carlo Monacelli, who teaches the class.
He said students learn about the music and culture, which they otherwise wouldn't get a chance to learn in school.
Jacob, the trumpet player, knew little about Hispanic culture before taking the class. Although he still struggles with Spanish, he said he has learned about the meanings behind the folk songs.
Residents have embraced the group, Monacelli said.
The students have performed eight or nine times at nursing homes, country clubs and festivals.
In the next few years, Walton hopes to expand the program, adding folk dancing and mariachi suits -- as long as the students continue to embrace the music.
"The children choose to be part of this," Walton said. "Nobody is making them [enroll]."