Changing School Culture through Band Programs

by ekramer on May 15, 2008

This week, students from two fledgling band programs performed for the community. The programs are part of an effort to boost school spirit and academic performance, as WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.

A constellation of drum beats emanate from the band room at Shawnee High School. In the middle of that room, almost a dozen students on percussion instruments encircle their teacher, Michelle Lewis.

Then in the midst of the groove, the rhythm goes awry.

“What are you doing? We were sounding great,” Lewis shouts.

“The beat was just going,” says one student.

“The beat was blown. The bass went out,” says another.

“My arms started hurting,” says a third.

This is Shawnee High School’s drum line that Lewis started not long after she became the school’s band director in 2006. Since then, Lewis has nurtured the school’s music program, which includes music classes attended by almost all of the students here. Here she spends half of her work day. The other half she spends in the same job at nearby Western Middle School.

Before taking on both programs, she had taught music at other schools in Kentucky and Texas. But this job, Lewis says, marked a first for her.

“I’ve never started at ground zero with a band program,” she says. “I’ve always started with — you know, we’ve had kids involved for years and years. But this is the first time I’ve ever done this.”

Most Jefferson County Public Schools have music programs, but Shawnee and Western abandoned theirs in the early 1990s.

Then five years ago, Mernia Hill became the principal of Shawnee High. She modified the school’s budget to afford it a part-time music director and helped convince the administration at Western Middle School to do the same. To find the right teacher, Hill consulted Pam Fleitz, the school district’s music supervisor. Fleitz knew Lewis could do the job.

“She’s charismatic. The kids love her,” Fleitz says. “She’s going to draw students into her programs. That’s exactly what those programs needed.”

At Western Middle School, Lewis is leading the band class in a piece slated for a community concert. The playing is a bit off.

“We have had this for a while. I expect you all to practice it,” Lewis tells the students. “If there’s something that’s going on at home and you can’t practice it, well, we’re going to practice it in here and do the best that we can with the time that we’ve been given.”

Lewis expects her students to practice, to take on special responsibilities in her classes and to achieve in other classes, too.

Raising expectations of students is one strategy Principal Mernia Hill says is helping improve Shawnee High School. When she started her job, the school’s tests scores ranked it as the lowest performing high school in Kentucky. Hill tried to change the culture in part by having passionate teachers.

Education consultant Grant Wiggins agrees with that approach.

“The tip-off in all good schools is that the expectations are high,” Wiggins says.

Wiggins works with schools and districts throughout the country on school reform and coauthored the book “Schooling by Design.” He says developing new arts programs at schools like Shawnee is rare.

“You’re between a rock and a hard place as an administrator in such as school because you’re desperately trying to keep alive a more powerful and rich definition of learning and schooling and you want the transformative power of the arts and athletics and experiential education, but you know full well that all of those things are not what people are looking at when a school is in crisis,” he says.

Wiggins says the fixation on assessment tests has marginalized the arts in schools. He says effective schools attend to the arts, but cautions against crediting a school’s academic success to a quality arts program. He says classes that teach critical thinking are important. Some arts classes do that, but assessment tests don’t measure it.

Principal Merina Hill says she thinks the music program has helped improve the school’s academic performance. Since 2001, its test scores have risen 33 percent. But there are other factors.

“I can see the difference,” Hill says. “I’ve got more kids graduating, going on to college. We have school spirit now. I have a dedicated staff. If you see Michelle, you see 95 percent of my teachers. I mean, they are just that passionate and that dedicated.”

For her part, Michelle Lewis says she knows there’s a lot of work ahead and she’s prepared to deliver.

“If it goes well I’ll stick around for a long time. As long as people are wanting to fight to keep the band and support it and go with that route, I’ll stay around for ever,” Lewis says.

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