Music Lessons Improve Lives, Rarely Available In NYC Schools

Print More
Hakeem Leonce plays his trumpet during band practice at P.S. 178 in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Photo by: Mara Zepeda

Hakeem Leonce plays his trumpet during band practice at P.S. 178 in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Standing on the roof of his apartment building in Brownsville, Brooklyn, 14-year-old Terson Modeste practices scales on his alto saxophone. The notes travel over the ledge and down five floors to the streets of his neighborhood, the poorest in the borough. Three years ago, before he learned how to play the saxophone, Terson would have been wandering those streets instead of playing his music high above them.

“Before I started playing my instrument, I used to walk around and get in trouble a lot,” he says. Terson would come home after school and tell his father he was going to play basketball. Instead, he would hang out with a group he now calls “bad people and bad influences.” “Sometimes we used to hit people and run,” he says. At school, he was getting poor grades and was suspended multiple times for fighting.

But then things began to change. Playing music gave Terson something to focus on and kept him busy. “I was so into playing my saxophone I wasn’t paying nobody any mind,” he says. “Whoever tried to start trouble with me, they wasn’t going to get nowhere because I was always at band or always at home playing.”

Today, Terson spends much of his time after school practicing. “Whenever I don’t have anything to do, like homework, I always got my instrument to go to. I stay with the saxophone.” His grades have improved. He points to a sheet of music and explains how reading the notes has helped him better understand math and English. In 2007, at the urging of his band teacher, he auditioned for and was accepted to the Middle School Jazz Academy, a selective program at Jazz at Lincoln Center that provides lessons to students whose families can’t afford them. On the roof, Terson is practicing for the academy’s winter recital. There, he says, “I can play as loud as I want.”

Terson Modeste

Terson’s story is the stuff movies are made of, the kind where a student with the odds stacked against him finds music and is suddenly transformed. It’s the type of story supporters of the arts love to hear, and one schools across the city hope to replicate.But Terson’s transformation wasn’t made possible through the efforts of the public school system alone. A patchwork of institutional, non-profit and individual supporters is working together to bring music education to New York’s low-income students during the recession.

This network arose during the 1990s to bolster the city’s arts education. Once a shining example of how inner-city arts curricula should be, the programs were decimated by budget cuts during the last major economic downturn in the 1970s. Now, as the city faces financial hardship again, some arts education activists worry that New York schools are turning their backs on teaching the arts. “What we don’t want to see is the devastation to music programming that happened in the ‘70s and ‘80s happen again during this economic downturn,” said Laurie Lock, senior director of programs and policy for the VH1 Save the Music Foundation and member of the New York City Department of Education Arts Advisory Council. “The last thing we would want to see is another generation-plus go without a vibrant arts education.”

Lock’s concern has arisen despite Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s pledge to enhance arts education for all city students. “Our students live in one of the world’s best arts cities,” he said in 2007. “They deserve nothing less than a world-class arts education.” To achieve this, Bloomberg announced three years ago that the city would begin holding schools accountable for the quality and amount of arts education they provide, the same way it does for other essential areas of learning. “We demand results in math and English and now we are demanding the same in the arts as well,” New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein said. This new approach emphasized detailed reporting of arts programming, staff members, and equipped classrooms. It also eliminated a line item in schools’ budgets for arts education in favor of allowing principals to set funding priorities.

Three years later, the changes can’t be working as well as the mayor had hoped. Most students who graduate from New York City public schools today don’t receive a quality arts education, especially when it comes to music. Terson’s experience is the exception, not the rule. The vast majority of New York City schools are in violation of the state’s minimum requirements for arts education, according to the New York City public advocate. In a 2008 report, the public advocate’s office found that while state regulations require all public school students to receive arts education, only 7 percent of elementary schools and 27 percent of all middle schools even offered classes in all of the four required disciplines: music, dance, theater and the visual arts.

More recent statistics tell an even grimmer story. Only 33 percent of students reported taking a music class during the last academic year, down from 40 percent the previous year. In an examination of approximately 160 middle schools in Brooklyn, 33 had no full-time music teacher and 42 offered no music education at all. Even the schools’ reporting process itself is flawed. Thirty two schools didn’t bother filling out the mandatory report. Terson’s school, P.S. 178, reported that no middle schoolers received music education, when in reality many did.

The Students of P.S. 178

The reasons why Bloomberg’s plan hasn’t worked are complex, arts supports said. One major factor, though, is that schools have no dedicated budget for the arts. Instead, principals pay for arts education from a general fund that must also cover a myriad of other priorities. The existence of a school’s music program depends on whether a principal values it. And because there is no mechanism to track how each principal spends this money, arts advocates worry that schools are using these funds to ensure students will score higher on standardized testing, instead of using the money to pay for arts classes.

With five percent budget cuts for the 2009–10 school year, arts advocates worry that music education is falling further down principals’ priority lists and the vast majority of public school students will never hold an instrument. Richard Kessler, executive director of the Center for Arts Education, described the current state of arts education as “the gathering of a perfect storm.” In a testimony he delivered to the New York City Council last year, Kessler warned: “What we are seeing today in the city’s public schools is a profound new shift away from the arts, and the other elements of a well-rounded education.”

Terson Modeste happens to attend a school with a principal who values music education. In 2007, then-Principal Max Glover decided to start a brass band and initially funded it with his own money. Later, the school won a grant from VH1 Save the Music Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides instruments to schools that need them. To receive this grant, the school had to hire an artist-in-residence, so the Department of Education agreed to provide funds to help P.S. 178 bring on a part-time band instructor. The school used that money to partner with an arts organization and hire Richard Boulger to teach the jazz band.

More than 300 non-profit organizations like the one contracted by P.S. 178 play an intermediary role between schools and independent artists who teach classes in public schools. These contract workers come at quite a cost to the schools themselves. Five 45-minute in-school music classes can cost a school around $500.

When Richard Boulger arrived at P.S. 178 in 2007 to teach jazz, he had the daunting task of creating a music program from the ground up in neighborhood where the median household income hovers around $28,000. He said he couldn’t let his students venture out into the crime-ridden neighborhood with the valuable instruments provided by Save the Music. “There can be junkies waiting outside that will take it to the pawnshop,” he said. So students could only practice at school, three days a week for two hours.

Another obstacle was identifying promising young students. Boulger held tryouts. “We treated it like a sports team. We had auditions. We checked their hearing abilities. They have to have the ability to hum a tune back to you.” Many of them did. Boulger’s success can be measured, in part, by how many students have been accepted to the Middle School Jazz Academy at Jazz at Lincoln Center. In 2007, three of P.S. 178’s students were accepted. This year, five P.S. 178 students represent a third of the program. One of them is Terson Modeste.

But the combination of support from the school district, Save the Music’s charitable donation, and non-profits like the Middle School Jazz Academy is still not enough to sustain P.S. 178’s jazz program. The dogged work of individual volunteers is also vital.

Boulger is both the jazz band teacher and a fundraising force, raising private donations to supplement the school’s budget and grants. He recently spent weeks editing a video he uploaded to YouTube, pleading for funds to support the jazz band program. He sent the link to his family, friends, and fellow musicians with the hope that they would chip in to keep the program going, repair broken instruments, and subsidize rentals for students who cannot afford them–all costs the school cannot afford. Viewers have responded to Boulger’s video requests and made contributions of time and money.

Boulger has also recruited a volunteer grant writer, Kate Desulis, who is friends with his wife. Desulis decided to help P.S. 178 after Boulger told her about his work. “He spoke so highly of his students,” Desulis said. She has volunteered over 60 hours writing grants for the jazz band. But the pot of available funds has grown smaller, she said. “Some foundations used to give funding out twice a year, and now they are only giving out money once a year.”

The part-time dean of student affairs at P.S. 178, Benny Brinson, has also stepped in during after-school hours. In the loud, echoing hallways of the school, he pointed to a tall boy who plays the trombone. “He’s made such great progress because of the band that we can probably pull him out of special ed,” he said. He has also noticed changes in another girl. “Her attitude used to stink.” Now, she’s polite, outgoing and has started to care about her appearance, he said. Brinson knows that the supplemental support that P.S. 178 receives is what makes transformations like these possible. “The students depend on the school, and the school depends on outside funds,” said Brinson.

The students also depend on Brinson. Last winter a record number of students tried out for the Middle School Jazz Academy. Some parents who worked night jobs couldn’t bring their children to the tryouts, so Brinson chaperoned them to their auditions at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Benny Brinson, Richard Boulger, Kate Desulis and Save the Music have created an unlikely alliance to sustain the band program at P.S. 178, filling a void left by public school funding. You can see the brick façade of the school over Terson’s shoulder as he practices “When the Saints Go Marching In” on the roof of his apartment building. In front of him stretches the distant Manhattan skyline. Miles away at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Middle School Jazz Academy offers Terson a rigorous, supplemental music education that may open doors to future opportunities: admission to one of the city’s prestigious arts high schools; college scholarships; the chance to play professionally. Terson’s success will not be reflected in the city’s annual arts report, nor measured by its benchmarks. A complicated series of events has brought Terson to the roof. Now the goal is to keep him there.