Charter Schools Tone Deaf to Marching Band Culture

A fast, raving beat blends with a cool, laid-back rhythm with horns wailing in the background on a bright Thursday evening in Jackson Square. The sound is one that begs the body to move with it, satisfying ears, and eventually stomachs.

This is how the members of the Free Spirit Brass Band make music, and for some in the band, make a living, by playing in festivals, on streets, and traveling to perform as far as Texas. They are the products of New Orleans high school marching bands.

In the city where jazz originated, marching bands have a solid niche in middle and high schools. Many great musicians from the area trace their roots back to their days in a marching band.

But the sweeping takeover of many public high schools in New Orleans by the state after Hurricane Katrina has left many area public school students, parents and teachers bitter about what they see as a neglect of music programs.
After the Hurricane

The state-run Recovery School District, known as R.S.D., was created  to transform schools that were consistently low-performing on state standardized tests. Although several schools were eligible, the initiative started slowly. The R.S.D. had taken over just five schools by 2005.

After Hurricane Katrina, which damaged or destroyed more than 80 of the district’s 128 school buildings, the state moved quickly to take over schools, leaving the city’s district with only  17.

The R.S.D. operates under the authority of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The board’s president, Chas Roemer, stressed that the state had to move quickly to take over failing New Orleans schools. “There was no luxury of time,” he said.

Mr. Roemer is the son of former Louisiana governor Charles Roemer III, known as Buddy. His sister, Caroline Roemer Shirley, is the executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.

The state board is a strong advocate for privately run charter schools, and New Orleans has the highest concentration of students enrolled in charter schools in the country — 84 percent, significantly higher than the next closest cities, Detroit and Washington with 41 percent.

“We don’t mandate curriculum,” Mr. Roemer said. “The charter school board determines that.”  One result, he said, can be that individual charter schools can favor other programs over music, even eliminating such programs altogether.  That is exactly what has happened, critics say.

“Charters like Future Is Now have dismembered the whole process,” said Dwayne Paulin, the band director at John McDonogh Senior High School, which is run by Future Is Now, a charter school network. Mr. Paulin, who graduated from the school in 1979, was a member of the marching band.

“Those people are coming in from out of state and don’t have a clue what this culture is about or what our kids need to know,” he said. A marching band gives students “a sense of culture through the music, a key component for what New Orleans is about,” he added.
Bringing Brass Bands Back

Mr. Roemer said whether a charter school has a music program is entirely up to that school’s board,  adding,  “Some are involved with the community in the decision-making process and some are not.” With academics now improving, Mr. Roemer said, he expects charter schools to bring back programs the community particularly wants, like bands.

Before the hurricane, there were about 20 Orleans Parish high school marching bands and 16 junior high school bands. Now, there are only 10 and 12 respectively, according to Lawrence Rawlins, band director at McDonogh 35 Senior High School.

“There’s also a racial dimension,” said Douglas Harris, an associate professor of economics at Tulane University, whose studies have found that broad community support for charter schools has been “elusive.”

“The state is controlled by white political leaders with New Orleans as a primarily African-American city,” he said. “The thought is that that power to decide what is best for your children has been taken away from African-Americans.”

But Dr. Harris said he expects charters to eventually add band programs. “In a market-driven system, charter schools have incentives to respond to parents who want marching bands,” he said. “They’re beginning to do that.”
Playing to Their Strengths
Jackie Harris, executive director of the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp in New Orleans, said that students who are musicians, particularly those in her program, tend to be better students in the classroom. She said that is why a strong music program should be a top priority for charter schools.

“I can point to people who have stayed in school just because of music,” she said.

For Justin Terrell, music has already played an important role in his life.

Mr. Terrell, like almost every other member of the Free Spirit Brass Band, was a member of his high school’s marching band while attending Warren Easton High School. The Free Spirit band’s membership reads like a who’s-who of the city’s most prolific marching band programs, including John F. Kennedy, Fortier and St. Augustine.

Unassuming in person, Mr. Terrell is loud and brash on his trumpet.

“Music is a lifesaver because it keeps me out of trouble,” he said. “I just picked up a horn and stuck with it. It kept me closer to my parents and it puts money in my pocket from time to time.”

John Cannon, 11, hopes to eventually play in St. Augustine’s marching band. A drummer, he has already performed in the French Quarter and at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festivals.

John says music means a lot to his family. Their voice-mail greeting makes that evident. It features his mother, Tonya, who played the saxophone in the Warren Easton High School marching band, harmonizing an invitation to callers to leave a message.

“It helps us eat, keeps clothes on our back and means that we get to sleep on beds,” John said.