Making a School Whole Again
David Byrd revived a long-gone high school music program in Oakland, California.
By Lori Schwartz Reichl
This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Teaching Music magazine.
David Byrd is captivated by schools close to his heart. He began his teaching career in California in 2002. “I got a teaching placement at a really nice school with a full band program, but I heard another high school in my hometown needed a teacher, so I went there.” After building that school’s program, Byrd was excited when Oakland Senior High School required a music teacher. “I went there because the school was closer to my home, and my two children and I could walk to school.” However, he notes, “I was shocked. The school wasn’t whole. There hadn’t been music for years. In 1989, Oakland had budget problems, fired every music teacher, and threw away the marching uniforms.” Many middle-class families left the district or fled to private schools, and low-income families couldn’t afford instruments. The school was struggling academically, with lower than average test scores and graduation rates. For years, the music room was used as a holding pen for tardy sweeps rather than a musical learning space. Decades later, the program has been a rebuilding challenge for the whole school.
Thanks to Byrd’s efforts over the past six years, there is now an orchestra with more than 50 members and a jazz band. “This year, for the first time in the history of Oakland Senior High, we will have full instrumentation for a jazz band!” How has Byrd been able to uplift the entire school? “I’m a hardcore recruiter” he says. “I show up at as many of the five middle schools’ concerts as I can and show students the medium G.P.A. of my orchestra members.” He wants his school to be the highest quality, not just for his children and musicians, but for all students.
“A comprehensive high school is not truly comprehensive unless it has all of the infrastructure, opportunities, and collaboration.”
“Making the school whole again is having a whole arts program,” Byrd says. “A comprehensive high school is not truly comprehensive unless it has all of the infrastructure, opportunities, and collaboration.” The school has a dance program and, as of this year, a drama program. The fine arts department is excited to collaborate on the musical, Grease, with a student cast, crew, and orchestra. “As a parent, it’s nice to have all offerings for students,” says Byrd. “I know my kid is not going to dance, but I want that option to be there.”
As Byrd continues to revive music with his passion and persistence, students are performing at a high caliber and earning recognition. While the quantity of musicians is rising, the quality of instrument storage is concerning. There are no instrument lockers nor is there proper storage for large string instruments. Nevertheless, Byrd has inspired the community to support arts—for instance, a GoFundMe account has been established to raise necessary funds. “We are an underfunded district, and it is super-expensive to live in California,” remarks Byrd. “We are the lowest paid teachers, and a strike is near. I want teachers to get a livable wage, students to have certified music teachers, and schools to be whole.”
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