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How San Diego Unified music programs do so much with so little

Michael Benge plays trombone with the B-Side Players and is also the associate music director at Helix High School.
Michael Benge plays trombone with the B-Side Players and is also the associate music director at Helix High School.

‘They shut down the music program here in 2000.” Emily Gray is Crawford High School’s new music teacher. She was hired to restart the music program. “At the beginning of the year, we had no instruments. So I taught the students about music theory. I taught them how to read notes. Then, when some money was freed up, we got recorders [those little plastic whistle-like things]. At one point, I had 70 recorders all at one time in class. I thought my ears were gonna explode.”

In the band room, there are a dozen music stands of every description and a few chairs arranged in a semicircle. The instrument lockers hang open and empty. The classroom looks as if it’s been pilfered, and in a way, it was. “The instruments went away to La Jolla High School in 2000,” says Gray.

Emily Gray was hired to restart the music program at Crawford High School.

Crawford can only afford to pay Gray for 67 percent of her time. (The remaining 33 percent of her work week is spent teaching music at Lincoln High School.) Gray says her beginning band class is restricted to sharing those recorders, but the 16 students enrolled in intermediate band class have the use of whatever conventional instruments she’s been able to cobble together via donations.

“Two flutes, three clarinets, three alto saxes, two tenor saxes, three trumpets, some percussion, and a trombone.” The trombone is made from PVC, the same material used for irrigation pipes. Plastic, not brass. “They only cost 150 bucks,” Gray says, “and they sound great.”

In March, the San Diego Unified School District, of which Crawford is a part, received a Best Communities in Music Education Award; as such, it was named one of the best places in the country to get a music education. Other school districts across the country — 306 of them — likewise received a Best Communities in Music Education Award, bestowed by the National Association of Music Merchants in Carlsbad. The winners were selected from a pool of over 2000 applicants.

The award was established in 1999 to recognize schools for keeping music alive in their curriculums. Winners are culled from surveys designed to measure things like fundraising, instruction time, and facilities. School districts reaching the 80th percentile and above are deemed winners.

According to the association, areas in which the San Diego Unified School District especially stood out included budgetary commitment to music, opportunities to learn music, the presence of certificated music teachers, adherence to state and national standards, types of musical experiences offered, and opportunities for performance and competition.

Not everybody involved in the business of music education in San Diego agrees.

“When we heard about the award, we said, ‘How could this happen?’” Mitchell Way is director of instrumental music at Helix High School in La Mesa, in the neighboring Grossmont Union High School District. “I get frustrated when I hear stuff like this. The days of having to do music as an elective? They’re over. San Diego may have a good elementary school music program, but most students don’t have anywhere to go after that.”

Michael Benge is associate music director at Helix. “What standard are they using for comparison? When you look at some of the great programs in the Midwest or back east, we don’t even come close. Maybe Poway or North County does, but not San Diego. Did they [SDUSD] get that award just because they exist?”

Mitchell Way: “There’s only one great [school music] program in San Diego, and that’s Mira Mesa.” Why? Mira Mesa, he explains, has a couple of full-time instructors and offers a variety of music classes.

Benge thinks the Music Merchants award may foster a potentially damaging illusion: “If people think San Diego is one of the best places in the nation for music education, then that tells everybody that we must be getting enough funding. And that’s not true.”

“Next year, we’ll have music in every single school except Kearny.” Karen Childress-Evans is director of visual and performing arts for the San Diego Unified School District. Why not Kearny? “Because there’s no money for a teacher,” she says. “[My budget] is cut all the time. I’m just below bare bones. They talk about bare bones, but they’ve amputated legs here.”

Emily Gray: “Last year we had a budget of about $2000 from the school administration and various monetary donations from alumni and other donors. For the coming two years I was given about $5000 to spend on supplies.”

The Helix High School music program survives on fundraising efforts and donations. “We can only spend what we bring in,” says Helix Instrumental Music Association President Mike Reed. He says they collected $83,000 last year and spent $86,000. “We have a tiny cash reserve.”

Childress-Evans explains that school music budgets traditionally come from several sources: ASB fundraisers, unrestricted funding that each [campus] receives from the district, grants, and donations. “Most budgets depend on donations these days, since the district is just beginning to recover from the California educational-budget crises. Every school is different. For instance, Hoover High School receives significant funding from Price Charities, while Mira Mesa High School does a lot of fundraising. Each school’s principal is the one who determines how much money will be spent on all arts programs.”

Still, Childress-Evans is good with the recognition. “It’s not that we have all the answers and that we rock. It’s that we’ve been able to do things other districts can’t do. We are the second-largest district in California, and that looks a lot different than districts with only two elementary schools.”

She also points out that hundreds of those same NAMM awards are given each year, but that the San Diego Unified School District was the sole recipient of the Kennedy Center for the Arts and the National School Board Association Award for Arts Education in 2011. “What they said to me was this: they had no idea how we did so much with so little.”

Would Emily Gray agree that San Diego’s music programs are all over the board? “Yes.” But she says there are programs in worse condition than Crawford’s. “And Mira Mesa,” which she agrees has the best program, “started off the same way. In the beginning they had nothing.” Gray, 24, is a Mira Mesa graduate. “They’ve been steadily building it up for several years. The demographics helped. A lot of the parents there wanted their kids to have a music program.” Mira Mesa declined to release their music-budget figures.

Crawford’s music program, once lauded for producing national-level talent — Nathan East (who played with Whitney Houston, Eric Clapton); Hollis Gentry (Larry Carlton, Fattburger); Carl Evans (Fattburger); jazz bassist Gunnar Biggs; pop star Stephen Bishop; and more. (In the spirit of full disclosure, the author is also a Crawford alumnus) — is again showing small signs of life. “Next fall, I’m 99 percent sure that we’ll offer intermediate band for the whole year, choir for one semester, and orchestra for one semester.”

Meanwhile, that recorder class, a baker’s dozen of Mexican-American, Vietnamese, and Somali students, has received its own, much tastier award. “I told them that if they all got to page 31 in the lesson book, I’d bake them a cake.” Did they make it? “Yes. I baked them two cakes from scratch: red velvet and chocolate.”

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Michael Benge plays trombone with the B-Side Players and is also the associate music director at Helix High School.
Michael Benge plays trombone with the B-Side Players and is also the associate music director at Helix High School.

‘They shut down the music program here in 2000.” Emily Gray is Crawford High School’s new music teacher. She was hired to restart the music program. “At the beginning of the year, we had no instruments. So I taught the students about music theory. I taught them how to read notes. Then, when some money was freed up, we got recorders [those little plastic whistle-like things]. At one point, I had 70 recorders all at one time in class. I thought my ears were gonna explode.”

In the band room, there are a dozen music stands of every description and a few chairs arranged in a semicircle. The instrument lockers hang open and empty. The classroom looks as if it’s been pilfered, and in a way, it was. “The instruments went away to La Jolla High School in 2000,” says Gray.

Emily Gray was hired to restart the music program at Crawford High School.

Crawford can only afford to pay Gray for 67 percent of her time. (The remaining 33 percent of her work week is spent teaching music at Lincoln High School.) Gray says her beginning band class is restricted to sharing those recorders, but the 16 students enrolled in intermediate band class have the use of whatever conventional instruments she’s been able to cobble together via donations.

“Two flutes, three clarinets, three alto saxes, two tenor saxes, three trumpets, some percussion, and a trombone.” The trombone is made from PVC, the same material used for irrigation pipes. Plastic, not brass. “They only cost 150 bucks,” Gray says, “and they sound great.”

In March, the San Diego Unified School District, of which Crawford is a part, received a Best Communities in Music Education Award; as such, it was named one of the best places in the country to get a music education. Other school districts across the country — 306 of them — likewise received a Best Communities in Music Education Award, bestowed by the National Association of Music Merchants in Carlsbad. The winners were selected from a pool of over 2000 applicants.

The award was established in 1999 to recognize schools for keeping music alive in their curriculums. Winners are culled from surveys designed to measure things like fundraising, instruction time, and facilities. School districts reaching the 80th percentile and above are deemed winners.

According to the association, areas in which the San Diego Unified School District especially stood out included budgetary commitment to music, opportunities to learn music, the presence of certificated music teachers, adherence to state and national standards, types of musical experiences offered, and opportunities for performance and competition.

Not everybody involved in the business of music education in San Diego agrees.

“When we heard about the award, we said, ‘How could this happen?’” Mitchell Way is director of instrumental music at Helix High School in La Mesa, in the neighboring Grossmont Union High School District. “I get frustrated when I hear stuff like this. The days of having to do music as an elective? They’re over. San Diego may have a good elementary school music program, but most students don’t have anywhere to go after that.”

Michael Benge is associate music director at Helix. “What standard are they using for comparison? When you look at some of the great programs in the Midwest or back east, we don’t even come close. Maybe Poway or North County does, but not San Diego. Did they [SDUSD] get that award just because they exist?”

Mitchell Way: “There’s only one great [school music] program in San Diego, and that’s Mira Mesa.” Why? Mira Mesa, he explains, has a couple of full-time instructors and offers a variety of music classes.

Benge thinks the Music Merchants award may foster a potentially damaging illusion: “If people think San Diego is one of the best places in the nation for music education, then that tells everybody that we must be getting enough funding. And that’s not true.”

“Next year, we’ll have music in every single school except Kearny.” Karen Childress-Evans is director of visual and performing arts for the San Diego Unified School District. Why not Kearny? “Because there’s no money for a teacher,” she says. “[My budget] is cut all the time. I’m just below bare bones. They talk about bare bones, but they’ve amputated legs here.”

Emily Gray: “Last year we had a budget of about $2000 from the school administration and various monetary donations from alumni and other donors. For the coming two years I was given about $5000 to spend on supplies.”

The Helix High School music program survives on fundraising efforts and donations. “We can only spend what we bring in,” says Helix Instrumental Music Association President Mike Reed. He says they collected $83,000 last year and spent $86,000. “We have a tiny cash reserve.”

Childress-Evans explains that school music budgets traditionally come from several sources: ASB fundraisers, unrestricted funding that each [campus] receives from the district, grants, and donations. “Most budgets depend on donations these days, since the district is just beginning to recover from the California educational-budget crises. Every school is different. For instance, Hoover High School receives significant funding from Price Charities, while Mira Mesa High School does a lot of fundraising. Each school’s principal is the one who determines how much money will be spent on all arts programs.”

Still, Childress-Evans is good with the recognition. “It’s not that we have all the answers and that we rock. It’s that we’ve been able to do things other districts can’t do. We are the second-largest district in California, and that looks a lot different than districts with only two elementary schools.”

She also points out that hundreds of those same NAMM awards are given each year, but that the San Diego Unified School District was the sole recipient of the Kennedy Center for the Arts and the National School Board Association Award for Arts Education in 2011. “What they said to me was this: they had no idea how we did so much with so little.”

Would Emily Gray agree that San Diego’s music programs are all over the board? “Yes.” But she says there are programs in worse condition than Crawford’s. “And Mira Mesa,” which she agrees has the best program, “started off the same way. In the beginning they had nothing.” Gray, 24, is a Mira Mesa graduate. “They’ve been steadily building it up for several years. The demographics helped. A lot of the parents there wanted their kids to have a music program.” Mira Mesa declined to release their music-budget figures.

Crawford’s music program, once lauded for producing national-level talent — Nathan East (who played with Whitney Houston, Eric Clapton); Hollis Gentry (Larry Carlton, Fattburger); Carl Evans (Fattburger); jazz bassist Gunnar Biggs; pop star Stephen Bishop; and more. (In the spirit of full disclosure, the author is also a Crawford alumnus) — is again showing small signs of life. “Next fall, I’m 99 percent sure that we’ll offer intermediate band for the whole year, choir for one semester, and orchestra for one semester.”

Meanwhile, that recorder class, a baker’s dozen of Mexican-American, Vietnamese, and Somali students, has received its own, much tastier award. “I told them that if they all got to page 31 in the lesson book, I’d bake them a cake.” Did they make it? “Yes. I baked them two cakes from scratch: red velvet and chocolate.”

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