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Music Returns To D.C. Schools?

The announcement, made with great fanfare from the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, was dramatic: This spring marks "the return of music to the D.C. public schools," said deputy schools chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Applause swept the sold-out hall, and the great jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis stepped to the podium to offer his praise. By embracing music education and turning away from the test-driven narrowing of the curriculum that has so deadened too many classrooms in recent years, the District has found "the way for us to reclaim our soul in this country," Marsalis said.

But has music really returned to the D.C. schools?

What the Washington Performing Arts Society and D.C. schools officials were celebrating last week was a pilot program that began in February at three middle schools and may be expanded to more schools in coming years. The Capitol Jazz Project, a $200,000 effort by WPAS to resurrect jazz instruction in the schools, has engaged 250 students at Hart, Hardy and Merritt middle schools in classes based on Marsalis' Jazz for Young People curriculum. The students are learning from the system's own music teachers and from two professional ensembles who visit each school every few weeks. And about 450 students will enroll in a one-week music day camp this summer.

The Performing Arts Society is also working with the school system on music and arts curriculum standards--a basic building block that the D.C. schools have lacked for many years. "With the new standards, every child in the system will get music instruction," says Carol Bogash, education director of WPAS and creator of the Jazz Project."Of course, to do that, DCPS will have to put music teachers in every school."

And that's where things get a little dicey. Chancellor Michelle Rhee's 2009 budget contained $44 million for a slew of new social workers, art and music teachers, literacy coaches and extracurricular activities. But the D.C. Council, led by chairman Vincent Gray, is countering with a proposal that would cut $18 million--a hit that Rhee says would threaten the art and music component of her plan.

This sort of gamesmanship over the budget is par for the course, and schools leaders love to trot out the list of pretty new programs that they would have to kill if they don't get the money they seek.

But the fact remains that many D.C. schools have little or nothing in the way of music or art instruction. And it wouldn't take a whole lot of money to change that. The Jazz Project is showing the way with richer content, even as Rhee and her band of reformers clear the path with greater efficiency. At Hardy Middle School, which is temporarily located in Northeast while its Georgetown building is rehabbed, music teacher Yusef Chisholm says he was stunned to receive new instruments this year for the first time in many years.

"I see the turn now," he says. "In the past, we got nothing from the system. We had to get parents to rent instruments." This year, all sixth and seventh graders at the school are getting music instruction three times a week. (Chisholm, a veteran teacher who started Ballou High School, left the high school level because music instruction had so collapsed that there weren't enough kids arriving in the upper grades with basic musical knowledge even to stock the Ballou bands.)

At Hart, music teacher Ovetta Lewis, a 22-year veteran, can teach only a little more than 100 of the school's 540 students, so kids have to be lucky enough to be randomly assigned to music class (experienced musicians can petition Lewis to get in.) She too was startled and pleased to get new instruments this year, but, she says, "It's still a struggle. I feel an interest from the new" administrators, but not yet a firm commitment to arts education.

Even if a combination of outside help and a new approach from Rhee does allow each school to have a music teacher, the arts program generally has a long way to go. Hart principal Willie Bennett says those children who aren't lucky enough to get into the music class have no arts alternative. The school has no visual arts teacher, no drama teacher.

"The budget constraints just don't allow it," he says. "It's too bad, because I see how Ms Lewis gets some of those behavior-challenged kids and they really do calm down in music class. I wish we could get more of the kids in there."

At the Kennedy Center, the middle school kids soak up the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra's thrilling improvisations and bask in the applause of an audience that's visibly relieved to hear good news about the D.C. schools.

When the band plays a composition by reedman Ted Nash that paints an aural portrait of the American artist Jackson Pollock, the D.C. kids revel in the splashing, nearly cacophonous waves of notes. But when Marsalis introduces the number by naming Pollock and adding, "So you know what that's like," the D.C. kids haven't a clue.

How long before that changes?

By Marc Fisher |  May 13, 2008; 7:25 AM ET
Previous: D.C. Chooses Shopping Over Arts | Next: WAMU Fires Jonetta Rose Barras

Comments

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Just had to respond to this.... I'm an older woman who is now taking piano lessons, a lifelong dream of mine. We only had music classes in the lower grades in public school. Those classes were only 'music appreciation' type, not actual playing on an instrument. The 'rich kids' who could afford to rent instruments got to take band and could learn to play. My mother was not going to put out money to rent something she wasn't going to own, so that was my loss. We couldn't afford an instrument or lessons. Period.

Now, I have an electric keyboard and am taking piano lessons on Saturdays. Have wanted to play piano since I was about 5 and a woman played at our Sunday school. I love it, I have a good teacher, and I'm sorry for all the lost years when I wasn't learning music. I'd be curious to know if any study has been done to see if kids who play instruments get better grades than kids who don't.

Posted by: Commuter | May 13, 2008 11:24 AM

Any DC school that doesn't have a music teacher or whose PTA hasn't provided funding to hire a music teacher needs a new PTA president or new principal. I was unaware this was an issue because the elementary schools around here are covered.

Posted by: DCer | May 13, 2008 2:21 PM

Music performance training is actually required under NCLB, but it is ignored because schools are not scored on it.

DCPS already has music curriculum standards -- they are cribbed from those developed by MENC, The National Association for Music Education. What DC does not have: enough instrumental music teachers. Musicians are small-muscle athletes, and must begin training early. Accredited music teachers can indentify young students who show promise and route them to organizations like the Levine School, which have programs for students from all economic groups. Junior high school is too late.

Instruments themselves should not be a problem. As I understand it, DCPS has an instrument repair shop, the service bands have surplus instruments, and NAMM and other outfits have programs to provide instruments to needy students. Accredited music teachers know about these. DCPS needs them on board now.

DC's schools had an outstanding music program from the 1890s through the 1970s. It is long past time to restore this heritage.

Posted by: Mike Licht | May 14, 2008 10:33 AM

Music performance training is actually required under NCLB, but it is ignored because schools are not scored on it.

DCPS already has music curriculum standards -- they are cribbed from those developed by MENC, The National Association for Music Education. What DC does not have: enough instrumental music teachers. Musicians are small-muscle athletes, and must begin training early. Accredited music teachers can indentify young students who show promise and route them to organizations like the Levine School, which have programs for students from all economic groups. Junior high school is too late.

Instruments themselves should not be a problem. As I understand it, DCPS has an instrument repair shop, the service bands have surplus instruments, and NAMM and other outfits have programs to provide instruments to needy students. Accredited music teachers know about these. DCPS needs them on board now.

DC's schools had an outstanding music program from the 1890s through the 1970s. It is long past time to restore this heritage.

Posted by: Mike Licht | May 14, 2008 10:33 AM

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