Rebuilding after the Storm
Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation works to help music programs in Houston after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.
By Lisa Ferber
This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Teaching Music magazine.
Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation—which was created in 1996 by Michael Kamen, the late composer for the 1995 film Mr. Holland’s Opus—donates musical instruments to school music programs and children in need. Since its founding, Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation (MHOF) has helped 1,479 schools in 772 districts survive in challenging times. Recently, the foundation provided much-needed aid in Houston after the devastation from 2017’s Hurricane Harvey.
Lynn Tuttle, NAfME Director of Public Policy, Research, and Professional Development, says that the then-superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, Richard A. Carranza (currently New York City Schools chancellor) built out a multi-year plan for the school music programs working in collaboration with MHOF. Tricia Steel, program director for MHOF, remarks that, in working with schools and school districts, she noticed that some music classes had low participation and high teacher turnover. It seemed to be systematic, so Steel started researching how districts were operating, and MHOF launched Music Education District Support Services® (MEDSS) in the spring of 2017, beginning with the Houston ISD. The MEDSS program announced its strategic plan for the Houston ISD, including how to build back music programs throughout the entire district (with strong support from Carranza), and then the hurricane hit. Tuttle says, “And when you think of the devastation that would have hit the schools, equipment, facilities—it truly impacted the district’s budget. Even with emergency funds coming from the state and federal, it doesn’t cover the holes.”
“We have to make sure that everything is in place.”
Steel, who has worked for MHOF for 19 years, says that when instrument inventory in a school or district is insufficient, learning time is shortened. “The schools we help tend to have an annual budget of $3,000 or less for transportation, uniforms, supplies, festival and contest fees—and schools often share instruments as well as mouthpieces.” She notes that in Houston, where mouthpieces had to be shared before and after the hurricane, it led to a loss of 10 or 15 minutes per class for cleaning time. She says, “If students are sharing an instrument, they can’t bring it home and practice. In group rehearsals, the teacher has to have the group perform twice.” The MEDSS program, in part, looks to help rebuild and stabilize music programs—which includes enough instruments to allow students to practice at home and make the best use of rehearsal time at school.
Another sector of MHOF is the Music Rising Fund, through which the organization responds to natural disasters. It was started after Hurricane Katrina by U2’s The Edge and producer Bob Ezrin. Steel says that, before MHOF steps in, “We make sure there isn’t an insurance policy or a FEMA fund, and that we are the last resort. In Houston, there were about a dozen schools directly affected through flooding and wind damage.” She says that MHOF works with HISD to ensure that the district has adequate insurance to cover the investment after the storm, in case this sort of thing happens again. And she cites that the Country Music Association was tremendously helpful: “They were our funding partner, they provided substantial funding for MEDSS and the musical instruments. [Country star] Luke Combs visited Whittier Elementary School and presented a donation. That school was at the heart of the community that was impacted by the storm.” She says MHOF is in the process of finalizing its grant to the last Harvey school that was impacted. “We have to make sure everything is in place going forward: the music room, storage, scheduling, and making sure what we donate is what is truly needed when student participation may have changed in response to the storm.” This means waiting for things to settle before the organization knows what to donate, as there might be five tuba players but three of them lost their homes and won’t return.
Tuttle says that, after Harvey, the district cut back on administrative positions because of the enormous financial pressures of bringing back schools that had been damaged due to the storm. Because of its partnership with Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, the district did not cut back on music education and continues to fund district music program leaders to support the program. “[MHOF] just kept talking about how they were working with the district, and the district said, ‘You’re right, this is a good investment,’ and they continued to invest more in music for our students. Tricia really stayed the course. It’s a beautiful model of how to support music and arts education.” Tuttle says the combination of planning, funding, strategic guiding, and professional development have all helped rebuild music education in Houston ISD.
Steel says that any schools seeking help with equipment should reach out to Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 818-762-4328. To learn more about the foundation, visit mhopus.org.
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