It was while enjoying one of the high school marching bands that I was reminded of my old high school band. It was a doozy. 125 strong. Won competition after competition. Represented the state in Kennedy's inaugural parade. Finished 5th in Music Man national band competition. Performed in Europe. The pride of the school and the community.
Today, it has fewer than 40 students and doesn't field a marching band at all for most occasions. Of course, a lot has happened over the ensuing years. It has gone from an all-white segregated school to one that's now primarily minority. It has gone from a school of 1,500 students to one of nearly 3,000 students. But still, how can something so superior become something so inferior that it's basically non-existent?
I decided to write a letter to the editor lambasting my hometown for being so backward and outright cheap, but I needed some ammunition so I contacted a friend who is an administrator at my old school and asked her what has happened to the band. Here is her partial reply. It's lengthy, but worth the read.
To help frame the problem -
A high school student has 7 places in his schedule for courses. If a freshman or sophomore scores a level one on the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) reading test OR a level two and scores as "dysfluent" (fluency is the measure of one's aibility to read text at a steady rate, with appropriate pacing, and minimal stops - it is an appropriate test to use to obtain an overall picture of comprehension when a child is learning to read, but it is inappropriate for students at this level; secondary age students develop coping mechanisms to mask comprehension issues - a student may well be able to read at a sustained pace, but have minimal understanding of a passage ... but I digress), he is placed in Intensive Reading. Intensive Reading takes up two elective spots in the schedule, because the student is in reading every day. In addition, all 9th and 10th grade students take a math, English, and science class. Believe it or not, social studies is an elective in 9th grade, but we have typically put students in a geography class or AP (Advanced Placement) Human Geography (think of it as anthropology with training wheels - few ninth graders are ready for the rigors of a true AP class, unless they have been in a properly aligned, pre-AP or honors prep program). Our 10th graders take World History or AP World History. So . . . that child who did not pass the FCAT reading exam has already filled 6 of his 7 spots for classes. Students are also required to take a credit of health and a credit of PE before they graduate, so many are placed in at least one during the 9th and 10th grade years. But wait ... there's more. That same student who struggled with the FCAT reading, may also have had difficulty with the 8th grade FCAT math test. If that student did not successfully complete Algebra in 8th grade and made a low score on the 8th grade math FCAT, he can be placed into a double-blocked (it meets every day) Intensive Algebra class - eating up two more spaces in the schedule. There is also an Intensive Math elective which is not double-blocked. It is not unusual for a struggling student to enter with no space in his schedule for an elective, such as band.
Also, struggling students don't happen overnight. Many of these students have been placed in remedial classes in middle school, which means they never had an opportunity to participate in beginning band classes in the 6th - 8th grades, assuming the students attend a middle school where band is still offered.
I am all for providing a firm academic grounding, but humans need motivation and joy in their lives too. I remember students who were academically challenged but found a home in band before this hyper-focus on testing came to pass. Band gave them a place where they could be successful and work as a part of a team while they tried to bring their academic studies up to par. There is also a significant body of research correlating participation in music education with academic success.
And testing? Do you realize that we have had a standardized test conducted on our campus EVERY day since April 16? The week of 4/16 began the FCAT retakes for upper classmen who had not passed. April 23 began two full weeks of testing for 9th and 10th graders. Since the state has gone to a computerized assessment for retakes and 10th graders (9th grade will be added next year), we are limited to the number of students we can test in one day by the number of functional computers we have in our labs. Computerized EOC (End of Course) exams began this week, and will continue for two more complete weeks. These are in Algebra, Geometry, and Biology. AP exams start next week, and last for 2, then we have senior finals, finals for everyone else, and End of Course Exams in the classes that do not take them on the computer. And THIS ISN'T EVEN A FULL LIST for the last quarter, and doesn't begin to note the multiple district and state tests students took in quarters 1 - 3.
I know this is borderline rant, but it starts to give you a picture of what a band director is up against. When I say Mr. Jones has done an admirable job in the face of adversity, you can begin to have a glimpse of the obstacles. Scheduling is another issue. Gone are the days when the band director could have his top group together in one period, or perhaps all his brass together. Band is low on the scheduling totem pole - not for the school; our administrators bend over backward trying to find ways to make this work - but for a state and district that has lost sight of the human toll. Could you imagine having a band class composed of a mediocre tubist, 2 advanced students on flute, a bass drummer who doesn't read music, and 4 trombones? Welcome to Mr. Jone's world.
And even with all of the above, he continues to prepare students to put a show on the field and compete. Yes, he is well-deserving of your support, as is every other arts educator in this district who is not assigned to one of our two tier system's "private - public" schools, aka magnet programs.
One final question - where the hell is the press? They have abandoned their responsibility to report the truth.
This totally screwed-up system can be laid directly at the feet of the brothers Bush, Jeb as Governor, George as President. As Chris Rock so aptly observed: "No Child Left Behind? It used to be Head Start. What the fuck happened?"