Battle of the Bands

How one group unites, provides opportunities for Memphis-area musicians

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Mass Band members prepare for Saturday's Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands in Jackson, Mississippi.

A drumline’s cadence filled the corners of Fairley High School’s band room, where 260 band members from across Memphis wrapped up their final practice of the week.

“M-M-B!” the group shouted before lifting their instruments to attention. James Taylor, one of the program’s five directors, signaled one last stand tune before he made his closing remarks.

“It behooves you to be on that bus at that time,” Taylor said to the room of Memphis Mass Band members Thursday night, reminding them to follow his itinerary. Saturday would be a be a big day after all.

That’s when about 260 Memphis Mass Band members will make their way to Jackson, Mississippi, for the event of the season: the Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands. They’ll join mass bands from New Orleans, Detroit, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina to showcase musical performances.

“This is like the Honda of mass bands,” said baritone section leader Marico Ray, referring to the Honda Battle of the Bands, the ultimate competition between bands from historically black colleges and universities

Mass bands are designed to connect young band members to older musicians, many of whom are alumni of college bands and can help them through auditions and scholarship applications.

Created in 2011, Memphis Mass Band is a co-ed organization that’s geared toward unifying middle school, high school, college, and alumni bands across the city. The local group is a product of a merger of a former alumni and all-star band, each then about a decade old.

Ray, who joined what was called the Memphis All Star band in 2001, said the group challenged him in a way that his high school band could not.

“I was taught in high school that band members should be the smartest people, because you have to take in and do so much all at once,” he said, noting that band members have to play, count, read, and keep a tempo at the same time.

But the outside program would put that to the test. Ray laughed as he remembered his first day of practice with other all-star members.

“I was frightened,” he said. “I knew I was good, but I wanted to be how good everybody else was.”

Ray, now 30, credits the group for his mastery of the baritone, for his college degree, and for introducing him to his wife Kamisha. By the time he graduated from Hillcrest High School in 2006 and joined the local alumni band, he was already well-connected with band directors from surrounding colleges, like Jackson State University, where he took courses in music education. After he married Kamisha, an all-star alumna and fellow baritone player, they both came back to Memphis to join the newly formed Memphis Mass Band.

“This music is very important, but what you do after this is what’s gonna make you better in life,” he said. “The goal is to make everyone as good as possible, and if you’re competing with the next person all the time, you’ll never stop trying to get better.”

In a school district that has seen many school closures and mergers in recent years, Ray said a program like MMB is needed for students who’ve had to bounce between school bands. The band is open-admission, meaning it will train anyone willing to put in the work, without requiring an audition.

“[Relocation] actually hurts a lot of our students and children because that takes their mentality away from anything that they wanted to do, versus them being able to continue going and striving,” Ray said. “Some of them lose opportunities and scholarships, college life and careers, because of a change in atmospheres.”

With its unique mix of members, though, school rivalries are common, and MMB occasionally deals with cross-system spars. But Saturday, the members will put all of that aside.

“What school you went to really doesn’t matter,” Ray said. “Everybody out here is going to wear the same uniform.”

Asia Wilson, an upcoming sophomore at the University of Memphis, heard about the group from a friend. Wilson used to play trumpet in the Overton High School band, but she said coming to MMB this year has introduced her to a different style.

Jorge Pena, a sophomore at Central High School, heard about the group on YouTube. It’s also his first year in the mass band, and the tuba player is now gearing up to play alongside members of different ages, like Wilson.

They’re both ready to show what they’ve learned at the big battle.

“It’s gonna be lit,” Wilson said, smiling.

Need weekend plans? Tickets are still selling for Saturday’s 5 p.m. showcase. To purchase, click here.

 

Diversity

To find gifted students amid the district’s diversity, Aurora looks beyond math and English

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat
A class of second graders at Aurora Quest K-8 talk about patterns.

Second-graders at Aurora Quest scrutinized a complicated calendar on their classroom wall. Each day had a different kind of clock and a different background. Their hands raised impatiently, they described ever-more intricate patterns.

In a fifth-grade classroom across the school, students analyzed data on tablets and tested a series of claims against it. Were the claims true or false or did they just not have enough evidence?

In both classrooms, the students led the discussions, while the teachers hung back.

At the K-8 magnet school for gifted students in Aurora, students have access to higher-level courses than they might have at their neighborhood schools. Several of the older students are already taking high school courses, with one enrolled in a junior-level high school math class. Their progress means they’ll be able to take more advanced classes in high school that come with college credit.

Aurora’s gifted students, by the numbers

  • 34.8 percent of students identified as gifted and talented are Hispanic, compared to 54.1 percent of the district population.
  • 12.4 percent of the students identified as gifted and talented are Black, compared to 19.3 percent of the entire district population.
  • 4.4 percent of all students in Aurora are identified as gifted and talented, while statewide 7.4 percent of students were identified as gifted in 2017-18.

It’s a benefit that comes with being labeled “gifted.” Yet Aurora Public Schools lags behind the state in identifying students who are gifted. Students of color, from low-income families, and who are not native English speakers are underrepresented among those who are identified as gifted in the district, often called one of the most diverse in the country.

“We had a system that was giving us the results that it was designed to give,” said Carol Dallas, the district’s gifted education coordinator. “That needed to be changed.”

So three years ago, the district paid an outside group to audit its gifted program. Based on those results, the district started testing more students, looking at new ways to identify gifted students, and developing ways to screen for non-academic talents. Aurora Public Schools is also taking a closer look at what teachers offer students in a typical classroom once they’ve been identified as gifted.

Aurora superintendent Rico Munn was recently recognized by state officials for his efforts around gifted education in the district.

Nationally, finding ways to identify students who are gifted among all racial, economic, or language backgrounds has long been a challenge. Several states, districts, and schools have tried various ways to increase testing, to train teachers on what to look for, and develop different ways to identify students. But the efforts haven’t always resulted in diversifying the gifted and talented population.

Sally Krisel, the National Association for Gifted Children’s board president, said that while many of the practices Aurora is rolling out aren’t new, educators across the country could be focusing more heavily on talent areas now because of correlating interest in looking at the “whole child” and not just their abilities in English and math.

But local decisions have created a lot of variance — even among neighboring schools and districts — as to how a child comes to be labeled gifted and what happens next.

She said some of the newest and promising research is looking at ways to identify giftedness among English language learners who might not be able to understand or express their strengths on traditional tests that necessitate English proficiency.

At Aurora Quest, Principal Kelsey Haddock said about 24 percent of students are English language learners.

The school doesn’t limit entrance to students who are already identified as gifted or talented, but looks at students who show “high potential” through other evidence such as grades, state test scores, or teacher recommendations. And more recently, school leaders said they have looked closely at how fast students are picking up the English language as one measure that could show their potential.

Those that do get accepted into the school often show rapid growth and rapid language acquisition, she said, and frequently end up identified as gifted or talented later on. Aurora Quest is also working on improving its outreach to families to let them know the school exists.

As a district, Aurora’s efforts also include work with University of Wisconsin researcher Scott Peters, in an attempt to outline more clearly criteria for identifying gifted students. One goal of his work, which is still in its early stages, is to develop criteria that will not depend on whether a student in the district is fully English proficient yet.

About 39 percent of the nearly 41,000 students in Aurora schools are English learners. Students in the district speak 167 different languages.

District officials also expect that identifying students in various talent areas will help recognize more students from diverse backgrounds.

Right now, Hispanic students make up 34.8 percent of students identified as gifted and talented, compared to 54.1 percent of the district population as a whole. Black students are also underrepresented, making up 12.4 percent of the students labeled gifted and talented students compared to 19.3 percent of the entire district population.

Colorado, using federal definitions, lists various talent areas where a student could be designated as gifted and talented, including in leadership, creativity, dance, performing arts, and visual arts.

Aurora has slowly rolled out rubrics for those talents in the last two years, often working with experts from the city or the local college to determine what to look for. In the area of performing arts, for instance, the district holds a performance festival where teachers, as well as actors and producers, critique students demonstrating their talents.

By the end of the school year, district officials expect to have rolled out another rubric for identifying students with exceptional leadership talents.

Aurora has so far evaluated 136 students for talents, and of those, the district has formally classified 62 students as gifted and talented or close enough to have “high potential.”

Dallas expects numbers to “explode” this year as more and more schools and students are learning about the opportunity.

“Students are talking about it,” Dallas said. “There’s just a buzz.”

Aurora officials are also looking at how instruction of gifted students is playing out in 10 schools with the highest numbers of gifted and talented students. The schools are making requests for funding that could help improve what they offer students, and district officials will track what helps most as they plan ahead.

It should all work together to better identify and serve students, district leaders said.

In one Denver school, principal Sheldon Reynolds has been doing similar work. His school, The Center for Talent Development at Greenlee, isn’t a magnet school, but a traditional neighborhood school in a high-poverty neighborhood that is gentrifying.

Reynolds said he worked with district officials in Denver to develop identification procedures at his school around leadership, athletics, arts, and language. He also worked on training his teachers to identify when a student might be gifted and talented.

And he’s using community partners to offer programming to all students to develop those talents. For instance, he said, he partnered with the police department to offer a running club, where students got exposure to community leaders from a variety of fields.

“We have a ton of kids out there that have talent that we need to be paying attention to,” Reynolds said. “And as we change this instruction, you benefit all kids.”

Speaking Up

‘Smooth sailing’ or ‘left behind’: The student voices in a charged debate over NYC’s high school admissions

PHOTO: Julian Giordano/Teens Take Charge
Students at a Teens Take Charge forum with Nikole Hannah-Jones

At the same time Monday night that Manhattan parents were protesting proposed changes to how a few New York City high schools choose their students, teenagers in Brooklyn were giving voice to their frustrations with their educational experience, including the city’s entire approach to admissions.

Students with the advocacy group Teens Take Charge shared their struggles to navigate a sometimes labyrinthine high school application process. They described arriving late and ill-prepared to an undertaking that favors middle-class students — and, in some cases, realizing that they were beneficiaries of the system’s shortcomings.

Their call for change went far beyond the adjustment that the Manhattan parents were protesting — to do away with the admissions exam for specialized high schools and instead admit the top students from all middle schools. The proposal is aimed at increasing the number of black and Hispanic students at the sought-after high schools, and has generated debate, often bitter, since Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his desire to change the process in June.

Most of the parents at the Manhattan meeting were white or Asian, while most of the Teens Take Charge students who spoke were black or Hispanic.

The contrast between the two events drew attention from Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist who has written about segregation and her own family’s school choice experiences and who joined the teens in a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Public Library.

“I wish these two groups could have been in the same room, so that the progressive parents arguing their already advantaged kids deserve exclusive access to the best public high schools in the city could look the children they would deny this same privilege to in the eyes,” Hannah-Jones tweeted.

We amplified the Manhattan parents’ voices on Monday. Now, here are selections from the speeches of the Teens Take Charge students. Their comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

“It is always us … who are left behind” — Brianna Marquez, a junior at New Heights Academy Charter School in Manhattan

‘Are you sure? You know there are many students who have been studying for this test since last year and the summer.’ These were the words from my guidance counselor that rang in my head because like many students, I had some sort of hope that I could have a seat in a specialized high school.…

That’s what disappointed me the most: not being told the whole truth … Not being told that because of my economic status, I can’t have any sort of hope for a quality education. Not being told that many students who look like me — Latinx and black — barely get accepted to a specialized high school. That at Stuyvesant, my dream school, only 3 percent of students during that school year were Latinx, and only 1 percent were black.

It is always us  — Latinx and black students — who are left behind because either many of us aren’t encouraged or are limited because we are underestimated in the work we can do. So you’re telling me that countless nights of doing homework at 1 a.m. because I didn’t have a proper desk to work at during my middle school years isn’t hard work?

A few times a week for a couple of weeks, I would approach my eighth-grade algebra teacher to ask for help with the math section of the SHSAT because of the fear of being left behind or not being good enough to score high for this exam. Unfortunately, little did I know that I was already behind. This was math that I should have understood except I didn’t, because although I was one of the top students at my middle school, I didn’t have enough knowledge. I was never encouraged by an adult to strive to go somewhere such as Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech. Instead, we were told to just transfer to a regular public high school.

I didn’t know what were the ‘good schools.’

“I often think about the friends I left behind” — Toby Paperno, a sophomore at Beacon High School in Manhattan

I’ll never forget opening my middle school acceptance letter. I had gotten into my fourth choice, while all my friends had gotten into my two top picks, the only two middle schools anyone in my white, middle-class neighborhood ever talked about.

There was a huge stigma attached to my middle school, due to it being the most diverse middle school in the district….My mother tried to switch me into one of my preferred schools. Because I had been given my IEP [an individual education program for students with special needs] on the last day of fifth grade, my grades weren’t an accurate reflection of my abilities….

At my new school, almost everyone was different from me. I didn’t know whom to make friends with. So, I did what was natural: I found my place with the eight kids in my grade with similar stories to mine.

In eighth grade, I had an amazing social studies teacher. He helped me appreciate the diversity in my middle school and get out of my comfort zone to make friends with kids throughout the whole grade.

Soon it was time to apply to high school. That spring, I stared with disbelief at my high school letter: I had gotten into Beacon, my top-choice school! Only two other kids in my school got into Beacon, even though many others had listed it as their top choice. How come we got in, and they didn’t? Then it dawned on me. We had someone to help us practice our interviews, parents who could help us with our portfolios and advocate for us.

My middle school had a high school that was filled with kids who didn’t get into schools like Beacon. It had even fewer resources than the middle school. The kids like me that went on to different high schools needed less support than the rest of the kids in my grade….

Now, I go to a school that provides me with every activity I could want, several music studios where I can play the drums whenever, a beautiful library, and a PTA that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

I often think about the friends I left behind at my old school, the kids who needed more but got less.

“I didn’t even know what the SHSAT stood for” — Gerardo Hernandez, a senior at Bronx Leadership Academy II

My parents were not born in the United States and they never graduated from high school. They went through financial instability and tragedy throughout their lives, and the conditions they lived through pushed them to immigrate to the United States. Navigating the education system was foreign to them.

In eighth grade I heard someone talking about the SHSAT — the ticket to better schools, schools where kids had their own books, multiple classes to choose from — but I didn’t even know what the SHSAT stood for. No one at my school encouraged me to prepare for it.

I landed at an unscreened public school in the Bronx. When I walked through the doors, I believed it would be a challenge  —  what I’d read about the school sounded great — but in reality I entered a high school that was performing below standards, where just one in seven students enters the school performing on grade level. I knew there were better schools, but I couldn’t transfer. I was trapped. So I had to make the most of what I was given. We got out of school at 3:15 p.m. I guess they thought the extra time would help us catch up. But we didn’t learn much. I tried striving for better with little to no guidance.  

Fortunately, during my freshman year of high school, I had the luxury of applying to and ultimately being accepted into … a free college prep program for low-income students…. I felt challenged  — for once  — but I also learned how far I was behind. Thus began the difficult task of trying to catch up to high schoolers attending specialized, affluent, or properly developed high schools. I felt vulnerable, confused, and a loss of self-worth…. [The college prep program] cultivated an environment where I could have intellectual conversations, collaborations that signified pushing each other to reach beyond our limits and build trust.  

Now I’m a senior and I am close to … applying for [college]. I plan to pursue computer science as my major, and I hope to double major in Engineering. But I’m ultimately disappointed there have to be programs like SEO Scholars, Opportunity Network, Minds Matter, One Goal,  Bottomline, Prep for Prep and so many more programs that have to help kids like me  — kids the inadequate education system has left behind. Because the reality is: for every one of me, there are nine more still left behind.

“For me, it was smooth sailing” — Coco Rhum, a senior at Beacon High School in Manhattan

When I was in first grade, I was assigned the task of writing about what I wanted to be when I was older. I wrote: ‘I have a dream that one day girls can be president. Because girls are just as good as boys. I am going to study to be the first girl president’.… My single mother, a Ph.D., both told and showed me that I could be my own boss, that the world was mine for the taking. My zip code landed me in an elementary school with abundant books and arts and friendly faces welcoming me each morning. My first grade teacher fostered my curiosity and love for learning and helped me to see that I could dream big ….

This same privilege that made me dream big in the first grade has led me to opportunities and advantages; I have taken AP classes, have had multiple internships, have played sports and participated in clubs, and have my own desk in an art studio in school … While many of my peers have been unjustly left behind, I have not. When I was born, my mother moved to District 15 in part because of its schools. I attended a lovely and well resourced elementary school. It was over 75 percent white — five times the city average. In middle school, my privilege … continued as I attended a screened school in District 15. My middle school was similarly coveted, and similarly well-resourced. It was almost 60 percent white. And then came high school.

New York City’s high school application process is notoriously complex. But for me, it was smooth sailing. I knew the “good” schools to apply to …. I knew how to speak thoughtfully about myself for my Beacon interview, how to unscramble a paragraph for the SHSAT, and I knew how to pirouette for my LaGuardia audition. I worked hard, but I had already been on a path that meant that I was advantaged. The public high school that I now go to, which, when I applied, had screens for grades and test scores, a portfolio submission, and an interview portion, has an acceptance rate that is lower than Harvard’s and an annual Parent Association budget that is nearly half a million dollars. It is 50 percent white….

At each of the three schools I’ve attended, less than 30 percent of students have qualified for free or reduced price lunch — in a system where 75 percent of students qualify. All of my schools have been majority white in a system where just 15 percent of kids are white. The New York City public school system is segregated, and its resources flow to schools like mine.

“Even if you’ve managed to get a passport, you may still be denied entry” — Lennox Thomas, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy

As a young child, I lived by Malcolm X’s philosophy that “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” My grandmother learned that to be armed with education was to have a defense against systematic oppression. Her mother, born in the deeply segregated south, was denied a proper education. My grandmother did not want this life for her, nor future generations to come.

So every day during my third grade year in elementary school, my grandmother, with her high-cheekbones, thick box glasses, and sandy brown hair, made sure I completed all my school work along with extra assignments. She hoarded vocabulary flashcards, Scholastic News articles, math workbooks, science dictionaries, and any other resource that had been given to her by one of my teachers, all of whom she befriended. I was so well prepared during my elementary years, that I could not fathom how several of my classmates were at risk of being held back for not understanding the curriculum. This same feeling of academic shock visited me once more four years later when it was time to open my high school admissions letter.

Like every other student in my gifted and talented middle school, I hoped to be among the small percentage of students who would get accepted into one of the prestigious specialized high schools. I had spent the last four months cramming for a single test that would determine if I would enter a free academic heaven where opportunities were endless, funding was abundant, and the number of classes were in the hundreds  — or an academic abyss where there were finite resources, rushed curricula, and short staffing.

When I opened my admissions letter and saw that the words “no acceptance” next to every single specialized high school I applied for, my heart sank. I was slumped for a few weeks and started to think that I was somehow inferior to my peers that got accepted. At that time, I didn’t know that the kids that I was competing against were preparing years in advance….

Education is the passport to the future. But what wasn’t told to me and millions of others is that just like a passport, if you’ve got money, you can pay to get it quicker. If you’re of a certain ethnicity, religion, or gender, it may be denied to you completely. And even if you’ve managed to get a passport, you may still be denied entry to a country.

“Are you suggesting that I don’t work hard?” — Ayana Smith, a senior at University Heights High School in the Bronx

Perhaps the most infuriating argument I’ve heard is “black and Latinx students just don’t  work as hard as their white and Asian counterparts.”

My immediate reaction is always, ‘So, are you suggesting that I don’t work hard?’

Then, the person that I’m speaking to will usually retract their words to make an exception: “Well not you, Ayana. Your GPA is in the 90s, and your SAT score is a 1300.”

And, I mean, why wouldn’t they? In our education system, hard work is measured purely by results: numeric values that provide little insight on how hard a student truly worked. And, my stats fall above the national average for all races, so of course I must be more hardworking than my counterparts.

However, the truth is that I’m no more hardworking than the person sitting next to me because hard work is not always defined by being exceptional on paper. My peers do everything that they’re supposed to do: they attend office hours for tutoring, form study groups for the SAT, and spend more time than me studying outside of school.

But  no matter how much we study and prepare, we can only go as far as the limit allows us to … Unlike many of my classmates, I have received opportunities that they didn’t, opportunities designed to compensate for the faults within our education system. Because of this, I’m relied on by my peers to take on the role of a guidance counselor, instructor, and exam proctor.

I gave my old SAT prep books to my classmates who couldn’t afford them. I held mock Princeton Review SAT prep and tutored after school and during lunch. I sent emails outlining the essentials for the impending college application process, and I reviewed supplemental essays and personal statements. All because my school doesn’t have the resources to prepare students adequately for college entrance exams, and it doesn’t have staffing to accommodate the needs of all students: our guidance counselor serves 104 seniors, most of whom will be the first in their families to attend college.

“I heard parents complain that it wasn’t enough” — Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Millennium Brooklyn

“Parents in my school didn’t know about the achievement gap” — Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan

Sophie: I’m from the Brooklyn of brownstones, bagel shops, bike lanes, and grassy parks.

Tiffani: Parks in my neighborhood are dangerous after five o’clock. There is no studying in the grass under the shining light of the afternoon sun with textbooks that cost a dollar a page, a dollar a page that could be spent on funding teachers who know what they’re talking about. When it comes to school, people in my neighborhood think it’s all the same – you’ll get a decent education wherever you go.

Sophie: Go to P.S. 8. It’s one of the best schools in the city. That’s what my parents were told. That’s why so many parents decided to move to Brooklyn Heights. And it paid off. P.S. 8 had it all: parent-funded art classes, electives galore, advanced classes, etc. But still I heard parents complain that it wasn’t enough. They wanted more teachers with more degrees, smaller classes, bigger budgets, better resources.

Tiffani: Resources were always scarce. ‘I got my degree, I don’t need to be here,’ said the teachers who couldn’t understand our frustration, or whose frustrations overtook them, reminding us of that truth that they didn’t need to be there. So why were they?…

In my middle school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy, we received our one minute of fame after being discovered by Humans of New York…. We were 99 percent black and Hispanic. We were constantly told that we were brilliant. That if we worked hard, we could do anything. That the possibilities were endless. That we were more than where we lived…. Cameras flashing, reporters asking, and money and donations and TED talks from our principal … but then … the cameras left.

Sophie: I have always been in a school with resources, a school with privilege. But many in our community complained that it still wasn’t enough: all they could see was what their child didn’t have….

Tiffani: Parents in my school did not know about the achievement gap. They did not have the knowledge nor the time to focus on what math books their children were getting, what their children’s drama teachers were doing — or if there were drama teachers. Instead, they had to focus on what they were going to feed their children, and what time they were going to take off of work to pick them up.