And the Bands Play On In Alameda

A grassroots campaign in favor of music education spares Encinal High School’s band program from budget cuts.


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Photo by LifeTouch

When the Alameda Unified School District decided last spring on roughly $2 million in spending cuts to fund long agreed-upon teacher salary raises, it deemed it necessary to cut less popular electives and lay off some full-time faculty. Beginner band and orchestra classes drew the shorter straw.

Alameda High’s popular music director, Mitchell White, was slated for a layoff, and the district proposed splitting the efforts of music teacher Armen Phelps of Encinal Junior and Senior High School between beginner band sections at Alameda and advanced band at Encinal. That would have effectively ended Encinal’s marching band program and cut off its pipeline to advanced music performance, while leaving Alameda High without full-time music faculty.

Two weeks after the general public learned about the cuts, dozens of Alameda student musicians lined up before the district’s board of education to demand that the music programs be saved.

“Music has been a big part of my life, and I want that for everyone at every school, in our city around the world,” said Nathaniel Yee, a sophomore in the Alameda High School Symphonic Band, testifying before the Board of Education on April 23. “There’s always a chance in music, the chance to have the next Louis Armstrong, the next John Williams, the next Alicia Keys … and it starts at the schools.”

Eventually, White was reinstated, while Phelps chose early retirement. For a brief period, it appeared that band and orchestra would continue at Alameda High but could be relegated to an afterschool program at Encinal.

Student musicians and parents were devastated. However, their successful organizing efforts yielded a short-term happy ending: The bands will play on at both secondary schools, but in the long term, the school district will have to re-examine how to protect arts programs from the volatile market of student-driven schedules. In order to truly sustain the arts in public schools, administrators may face some unpopular choices ahead.

“There’s this conflict between our district mandating that the master schedule is driven by student interest,” said Alameda parent Tina O’Grady, who organized with the Alameda Bands Together Task Force. “That creates a risk in the music program, so the string orchestra and French classes might be in competition with each other.”

The crux of the issue is how to balance student choice over curricula with student enrichment.

“There are natural ebbs and flows, and we want to try to even that out to sustain enrollment,” said Deni Adaniya, another parent with the task force. “We don’t want to fight to save the whole drama program if enrollment goes down a bit.”

The immediate response was dramatic: Before the May 28 meeting of the Alameda Board of Education, more than 200 student musicians from the Island’s five middle and high schools played together in a demonstration supporting school music programs.

Ultimately, the episode was a testament to the power of grassroots organizing within the tight-knit Island community, particularly through social media. Adaniya and O’Grady, along with several other parents, were able to start the Alameda Bands Together Task Force as a Facebook group that united with the district’s Music Boosters. Their independent survey and collaboration with school administration may end up having profound impacts in how Alameda schools plan for arts education.

Facebook groups have become a bellwether for local politics writ large on the Island. Alameda Peeps, a group with more than 700 members, contains nearly 1 percent of the Island’s total population, and the group’s general sentiments on housing policies correctly predicted the defeats of 2018’s Measure K and the 2019 Measure B special election.

The board unanimously voted to direct Encinal Junior and High School to invest in hiring a full-time employee to replace Phelps, and the position was advertised on the website EdJoin as a 0.8 full-time employment position to teach guitar, orchestra, and band.

“If the kids are there and willing to take the class, then I support funding the positions,” Encinal’s Principal Daniel Hurst told the board.

“AUSD values music as an elective in our schools and understands its importance to a well-rounded education,” said district spokesperson Susan Davis. “We appreciate everyone’s willingness to work together, compromise, and develop a solution that benefits all.”

Although renewed interest in the guitar class is what ultimately guaranteed Encinal’s investment in additional staffing, saving Encinal’s music program may lead to future policy changes that de-emphasize student choice in arts education, and allow smaller, less ensemble-focused classes to thrive. A 2017 survey by the Give A Note Foundation found that the educational preferences of students and teachers may diverge more widely than anticipated.

“With few exceptions, music education continues to be dominated by the traditional ensembles: band, chorus, and orchestra,” the survey reported. “Yet, music educators, music education scholars, and others want to expand the ways in which students engage with music in schools.”

The organizing also revealed a chicken-and-egg problem with student-driven enrollment. Alameda Bands Together gathered survey data at Encinal High School showed a dramatic uptick in interest from students, suggesting that rumors of the music program’s termination had suppressed enrollment choice. In just two days, surveyed students showed more than enough interest to provide full enrollment — for instance, 33 students indicated they would pick symphonic orchestra, and 13 students chose jazz band.

“The primary reason given for canceling the band program was the perceived lack of interest that the community has shown does not exist,” said student musician Sam Meyer.

So if the initial enrollment numbers understated interest in music, the question becomes one of how to survey interest more broadly and not subject beloved arts programs to the whims of annual enrollment numbers.

“It needs to become part of the institutional memory of the school district,” said Sam’s father, Jim Meyer.

“If that had been the case, based on student-driven selection, we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all,” board President Mia Bonta said at the May 28 meeting. “My hope is that we empower Principal [Daniel] Hurst to go back and have conversations with this data to see if enrollment numbers actually get filled.”

Now, sixth graders entering Encinal Junior High will all take at least 12 weeks of music as part of “the wheel,” a rotation of electives that middle schoolers take throughout the year.

“I think we very much demonstrated that there’s great demand and interest in music,” Adaniya said. “It was pretty clear that enrollment strategies needed to be broader and longer-term.”

The data is clear: The school district made the right choice, as any investment in music education is a good investment overall. For instance, data from the U.S. Department of Education found that 25,000 students engaged in music programs showed higher math proficiency, and the College Board Corporation found that it correlated with higher SAT scores. But Alameda parents and students generally pointed to more fundamental benefits for mental health. Music, in short, keeps us sane.

“Music means a lot to us. It has been there for me at my deepest and my lowest,” graduating Encinal orchestra member Paulina Langarica told the Board at the May 28 meeting. The retiring Armen Phelps, she said, “has inspired and motivated me, and has believed in me since the beginning … I will always fight for the program that has changed my life.”

“We have worked so hard to create not only music, to form not only a class,” she said, “but a family.

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