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Band students at Edna Brewer Middle School at a practice session on a Monday afternoon.

Through adversity, music programs in OUSD fight to grow

on December 16, 2015

Cal’Vion Evans, an eighth grader at Roots International Academy, begins slowly, tapping the cymbals and toms with two wooden drumsticks. The drum set rests on a mini-stage, a short platform covered by a rug and flanked on either side by guitar stands, each with about 10 guitars leaning in. Cal’Vion speeds up gradually, his head movements changing from a gentle nodding with the music to a swivel as his drumming becomes faster and more furious. Then he slows back down, pounding the drum set with both sticks simultaneously, and grins at his onlookers, two teachers and a few stragglers who remain after class.

“I love creating stuff,” he said, “and creating stuff as a class.”

The health of music programs in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), as in other districts within California, is at the whims of statewide budget allocations and nationwide policies. Music and arts programs are often the first to get cut in schools, putting music teachers in precarious and sometimes itinerant positions: in 2009-2010, 54 percent of music teachers taught at more than one school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But music teachers are finding creative ways to cope with adversity and low funding.

“It’s one foot in front of the other,” said Helena Moss-Jack, the instrumental music director from Oakland Technical High School.

After establishing a very strong music program in the 1970s and early 1980s, the OUSD faced a series of budgetary setbacks. The first major cut Oakland experienced was in 1978 after Proposition 13 reduced property taxes, which are used to fund schools. More cuts in 1989 took out other programs. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 kept students who were struggling in subjects like math and English from taking music and other electives.

But recently, many schools, teachers and organizations have been pushing for music to be prioritized once again.

Today, 90 percent of schools in OUSD have music programs, many of them relying on donated equipment. This year, the district has launched a new initiative called the Arts Incentive Grant Opportunity, which will provide funds to create new arts programs at district campuses. This follows other initiatives like the Arts Anchor School Initiative and Music Integration Learning Environment (MILE), which have been working to expand arts programs.

The Arts Anchor School Initiative was created in 2005 to combat some of the inequities in the district regarding access to arts programs. It charged 31 schools with developing arts programs that would later serve as models for the rest of the district.

The MILE program was initially a reaction to the No Child Left Behind Act. The law focused on improving academic achievement in English and math, particular for at-risk students, and schools were expected to attain certain testing scores in these subjects.

But in the scramble to ensure students would perform well according to this measure, arts education got less attention.

“Students, especially at the secondary level, might have a math class and a math intervention class without a time in their schedule for an elective,” said Phil Rydeen, manager of visual and performing arts for the district. “And so that was what happened at the secondary schools. At elementary schools there was an increased focus on literacy and math, and so that would really limit the time that might be available for music and art instruction.”

Rydeen and the music department approached this obstacle by figuring out how music education could fit into the new rules. “Could we actually get to the place where we could do two things at once?” he recalled. In other words, could music and language learning, or music and mathematical learning, happen simultaneously?

They began to put together lesson plans that integrated music with the core math and English curriculum. For the first few pilot years, music teachers and classroom teachers at Thornhill Elementary School took part, planning and collaborating, knowing that they were developing curriculum that would potentially be used by a larger array of schools. They applied for and received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to pursue this project.

After the proposal was accepted in 2008, the program ran for four years, from 2009 to 2013, focusing on Kindergarten through 5th grade at participating schools. The study involved three “control schools” in which students had no MILE instruction, and three “treatment schools,” where students did have music integrated into their curriculum. The project followed students through three years of schooling.

At the project’s conclusion, the results for this model were promising. Overall, students who studied math and language alongside music did better than those who did not.

“It was not a random connection, but a real connection between language learning, math learning, and music learning—they were all tied together,” said Rydeen.

In particular, the study found the correlation for the most at-risk students. According to the abstract published in 2013, after the data had been analyzed, “low performing MILE school results approached the level of performance of the high performing laboratory schools that had far more experience with MILE.” One laboratory school this statement refers to is the Thornhill Elementary, a school with exceptional test scores and more experience in music-integrated curriculum; while Thornhill served as the pilot school for this study, it was not a part of the data analyzed.

Additionally, according to the abstract, “MILE schools demonstrated a relatively higher ‘degree of association’ between music learning and academic achievement outcomes—especially for African American students.”

Rydeen and his colleagues applied for another grant to further the project, which they did not receive. “If they offered the funding opportunity again, we would probably apply again,” said Rydeen. “But it would be a very different kind of study, because the educational landscape has changed.”

But even before No Child Left Behind, other laws had affected the OUSD’s music program. Randy Porter has been a music teacher at Westlake Middle School for 16 years, and went through Oakland music programs himself in the 1970s, with his parents going through the programs in the ‘40s and ‘50s. 

“When I was a kid, Oakland was a national model for music education,” said Porter. “It is the second district in the country that made the decision to purchase instruments for students.” He recalled many administrative positions in the district in the 1970’s that dealt solely with music, from instrumental and vocal administrators to a full-time music librarian. “It was a huge program, and Oakland Unified got many accolades for it,” said Porter.

And then, on June 6, 1978, voters passed Proposition 13. A statewide measure, Proposition 13 re-structured property taxes, so that taxes on homes, businesses and farms were rolled back to their 1976 market value percentage. Property taxes could not increase more than two percent each year if a property was retained by the owner. If sold, the property and (by correlation) tax rates were to be reassessed. According to the lobbying group Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, this proposition protected the elderly, who were especially affected by rising housing costs in the 1970s. But this placed younger residents and more transient families at a disadvantage, as they were subject to rising tax rates, and meant that long-term homeowners continue to pay rates that are not much higher than those from 1976. It also meant that schools, which rely upon local property taxes, saw a decrease in funding.

“Many things took a hit, including the schools,” said Porter. “So things really started to change. And in the 1980’s, Oakland Unified was really—it was suffering from a lot of deficit.”

In 1989, the district was in a $10 million deficit, according the New York Times article “Oakland Schools Face Bankruptcy and Scandal.” Porter was one of several music teachers laid off when the Oakland Unified school board decided to cut elementary school instrumental music programs. He was able to continue working for Oakland schools privately, through the support of Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs).

“Shortly after that, there was a pretty big community outcry. An organization called STOMP, Save the Oakland Music Program, was formed,” said Porter. “And it was in fact, Jean Quan’s first foray into politics. She was one of the first co-founders of STOMP.” STOMP and other supporters organized fundraising efforts to try to bring back music programs that had been cut. Sheila E., a renowned musician from Oakland, performed with her father, percussionist Pete Escovedo.

“And little by little, music programs sort of came back, but those few years of not having a program … really took its toll and the secondary music programs really suffered,” said Porter.

Quan, who later served on the school board and then as Oakland’s mayor, recalls this event from the perspective of a concerned parent. “Oakland schools were going to kill the music programs,” said Quan. “And a friend of mine was on the school board and she said ‘Jean, they’re going to do it, and no one’s going to know, and what can we do?’”

Quan was a union organizer at the time, and so she, along with 20 friends, leafleted every school in Oakland, catalyzing a 700-person turnout at the school board meeting at which board members would vote on the issue.

After a year of fighting the cuts, with a “city network” of supporters, Quan and her team went to the then-mayor Lionel Wilson and got the council to pour city funds into the music programs.

“We got them to fund a million dollars for the music and arts academy programs, and that helped save a lot of the programs,” she said.

Before joining the team at Westlake Middle School in 2000, Porter was a full-time teacher at Thornhill Elementary, the same school that had piloted the MILE program. He left Thornhill because, while he enjoyed his job at “one of the highest-performing schools in the state,” he nevertheless wanted to teach in “a place that served a low-income community in Oakland, where I would also get good administrative support.”

In his first year at Westlake, he taught two classes: a beginning band class with about 15 students and a beginning strings orchestra with 12 students. Today, his program has grown, and he teaches five classes, including a guitar class and a jazz ensemble. This growth is important, he says, because, with a greater number of classes and more levels of instruction, students have something to work towards.

“I think it takes five years to really build something,” said Porter. “Because you have to be able to get to a new level of excellence that kids know that they’re able to attain.”

On a typical Thursday afternoon, Zack Pitt-Smith, who was named OUSD’s Teacher of the Year in 2014, is conducting a large group of middle school band students in the “Playhouse” at Edna Brewer Middle School, the rehearsal space that includes a stage. Right now, they are practicing student-composed pieces, the full set of which is titled “Planets.” Students worked in groups to come up with motifs that were ultimately written as whole-band pieces, part of the “Planets” set. “Saturn” opens dissonantly, eerily, with staccato notes by the trumpets and triangles in a conversation with the percussion. As the band practices, Pitt-Smith interrupts them every few lines and asks them to re-play a part of the music, correcting the rhythm or volume of an instrument section.

“Raise your hand if you composed this piece,” he asks the group at the conclusion of “Saturn,” to which a handful of students raise their hands. “So cool!” he tells them. “I consider myself an accomplished musician, but composing is one of the hardest things for me.”

Pitt-Smith agrees that OUSD had suffered from its years without music programs. “In the old yearbooks, back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, you see what there used to be, when the general community really valued music as a cultural piece of the school, but also as a central part of a young person’s education,” he said. “And then it fell apart, in the late ‘90s.”

When Pitt-Smith came to Edna Brewer in 2007, he only had 30 students in his class, and they used buckets to practice drumming. Now the music program serves about 250 students, and their instrument collection is a staple of the district and shared by other schools as well. “Now we have more bassoons than bassoonists,” he said.

Donations played a big role in this growth. “We have some really nice ‘rich uncles,’ donors, or sister schools out in the more affluent suburbs, who have really taken a kinship to us,” Pitt-Smith said.

Pitt-Smith also noted the help of nonprofits like 51Oakland. Founded in 2011 by Jason Hofmann and Yoshi Akiba, the organization connects students to Oakland-based artists, and provides opportunities for students to perform live at Yoshi’s Jazz Club. The program comes to individual campuses and operates during the day, differing from many other programs that take place after school, and features lessons from Oakland artists like Sheila E. and Kev Choice.

“Collaborations with 51Oakland also include getting instruments for programs that need it,” Pitt-Smith said. “So Sheila E. is a graduate of the schools, and she has come by and given us a lot of percussion equipment at my school.” He added that, while currently Edna Brewer’s music program has what they need, the organization does a lot of work in promoting programs at schools lacking in music.

“We realized that there was a lack of funding during the school day, and a lack of programs during the school day,” said Jason Hofmann, the executive director of 51Oakland. “It’s so hard to operate as a nonprofit within the school day, which is why there are so many after-school programs that do great work, but it doesn’t necessarily combat the high dropout rates, and the truancy, and all the issues that are facing the school district and the students.” He attributed high dropout rates within the district to the removal of “all the things that make kids wake up, show up,” like music.

Hofmann noted that because the artists at 51Oakland are not “the authority,” they are able to connect with students in a way that teachers cannot always do. “Many of them are Oakland products, and they’ve seen them on TV, or they can pull them up on YouTube, and see their videos,” he said. “They really look up to them, and so through that process, we mentor and really make huge strides with them.”

Porter expressed gratitude for the connections to professional musicians that 51Oakland and Yoshi’s Jazz Club offered his students, because they work one-on-one with Westlake students and perform with them at the school’s annual jazz festival. “We’ve been able to get these amazing world-class artists to come and not just perform with our students, but hang out, do a master class, talk with them, and have this great experience,” he said.

Other Westlake partnerships include SF Performances, Cypress String Quartets, the Oakland East Bay Symphony and SF Jazz. All these organizations bring in Grammy winners, MacArthur Geniuses and world-class artists to play alongside students and support music teachers in their classes.

Teachers often have to look for outside avenues to purchase instruments for their classrooms, too. Music teacher and director Dr. Bryan

Alvarez came to Roots International in November, 2014, first as a substitute teacher. On his second day, Alvarez, who was also playing the bandoneón in a tango orchestra, told the administration that he wanted to focus on music, and they created a position as a music teacher for him. It was the school’s first music program.

“When I came, no one had any clue what a music program looked like,” said Alvarez. “They gave me the library to start, because that was a storage room at the time. There was no room for music.”

With two guitars, a broken violin, a trumpet, a trombone and two half-broken keyboards, music classes began this January. Despite Alvarez’s initial plans of spending some time speaking about music, he said, “students wanted to play so bad, that all my concepts went out the window, and for a couple weeks we just had students come in and play.”

Roots didn’t have extensive funds for instruments. But Alvarez discovered Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit in New York that is partly funded by Oakland-based music service Pandora, that was to fill his classroom with instruments. After completing a professional development course with the organization, Alvarez received credits that could be used for acquiring musical instruments.

“I ended up with five electric guitars and a few acoustic guitars,” he said of that first course he took. “And then from there, I realized that I could have other teachers sign up for it, too.”

With their combined credits, the music class gained everything from ukuleles to PA systems. In addition, last year was the final year of Roots’ School Improvement Grant (SIG), a federally-funded grant available for low-performing schools. In 2010, Roots International was one of four OUSD schools listed as “persistently low achieving” by the state of California. Because of this, OUSD applied for a grant for the school for the following school year that would last three years. With some money left over from the grant, Alvarez was able to buy $6,000 worth of electric drum sets, cables and music stands, among other things.

He also acquired materials just by asking for donations from nearby tech companies; Pandora was one of their strongest supporters, donating MacBook Airs and Pros for students to learn recording and song mixing.

Now, instruments and technology fill Alvarez’s classroom. Seven keyboards are lined up neatly against the window, with posters illustrating piano chords hung up above them. Three hand drums are circled next to the keyboards, and ukuleles are stowed away in cabinets on the wall by the door, where students set their backpacks. Extension cords for drums and electric guitars sprout out of central wooden platforms, or “jam hubs,” all connected neatly to avoid tangling.

After the 7th and 8th grade students from his final period of the day have shuffled in and sat down, Alvarez tells them that they have “unlocked music class” after two weeks of preparation, which he requires before they can begin playing the instruments. Students have spent the last two weeks being introduced to the musical instruments and equipment, learning to sing and listen for key number interval patterns (like: 0, 2, 3, 5, 3, 2, 0). They have also signed a contract promising to care for the instruments and respect other students in the class. Alvarez mentions a recent performance by the Oakland R&B musician Goapele that some of the students attended. “To be in her band, you have to be focused, on time, professional,” he tells them. Music class would need to operate that same way, he says, for them to be given more freedom and responsibility with the instruments.

Now the students will finally get to play together. Alvarez plugs one of the Pandora-donated computers into his sound system, explaining that he has used the program Garage Band to transcribe the different instrumental parts for the song they will be working on for the rest of the semester. As “You Got Me” by The Roots comes on, all chatter and tapping stops, and students listen, spellbound, to the music.

Excitedly, students group together by instrument, pecking away at the piano keyboards with their fingers, plucking at guitar strings and pounding rhythmically on the hand drums. At first they wear grey headphones to be able to practice their parts alone, but at the end of class the parts come together to play alongside the recording, conducted by Alvarez.

“You’ve unlocked music class!” Alvarez tells them again, this time nodding proudly at the students.

Alvarez was a recent finalist for the Farmer’s Insurance “Big Ideas” grant, a grant in the amount of $100,000. This grant money would have gone towards building a “music park” and a maker space at Roots, to further advance the program and what students can learn.

The music park is inspired by a small section of Dolores Park in San Francisco, where children and families can play on a big bell set and recycled drums. Alvarez imagines a whole park made up of large musical instruments that could become a central community spot. For example, park-goers “would actually have to learn to play a new instrument by using a lot more playground-ish movements.” The big drums he envisions would not just require drummers to use their hands and arms, but also hips and legs too.

The maker space is envisioned by the Roots administration as something the entire school could use—Alvarez’s addition, though, would be 3-D printers and laser cutters, for students to be able to design and create the instruments that would be featured in the music park.

While Alvarez did not receive the grant, his campaign for the music park and maker space garnered much attention for the Roots music program via social media. A video of Cal’Vion playing the drum got 89,000 views in one night.

Despite individual or organizational efforts, Porter, Pitt-Smith and Hofmann all agree that serious inequities exist among OUSD schools, particularly when it comes to students’ abilities to pursue music at a high school level.

Skyline, Oakland High, and Oakland Tech all have established programs, but 10 other high schools do not have district-funded music programs. McClymonds and Castlemont have programs that are just returning after a hiatus. 

McClymonds is in its second year of having a music program, after 12 years without one. Elevate Oakland, an organization that is the result of a partnership between 51Oakland and Sheila E., operates in McClymonds, where artists stay at the school for two or three-week residencies, coming in three days a week.

Vince Tolliver is leading Castlemont High School in its first year of having a music program in over a decade. He noted that all the schools without programs are in East and West Oakland.

“For many of my students, I’m their first music teacher,” said Tolliver. “That’s crazy, you should have been in kindergarten singing, and the first thing in third grade playing recorder.”

He compared his current job to his experience teaching at Skyline High School, which has had a very good music program for many years. At Skyline, “my latest kids had maybe started in middle school, 6th, 7th, 8th, grade, and a good proportion of kids started in fourth,” he said. “So the level of experience and training, it’s very hard to make that up in high school.”

Porter said there is room for improvement at the high school level. “Skyline is solid, Oakland High is getting better and better,” he said, attributing Oakland High’s success to current music director David Byrd. But he expressed concern about Oakland Tech requirements that may restrict students from taking more than one year of fine arts. “A lot of students in high school will do one year of instrumental music, and in many cases that’s all they can do,” Porter said.

Tech is known as a rigorous school, with high quality programs that prepare students for higher education.But these requirements, particularly in the academiesand Paideia program, restrict the electives a student can take, said Helena Moss-Jack, the instrumental music director at Oakland Tech. “The structure on campus is not necessarily for the arts, it’s more tailored to the core subjects.”

To allow students who want to be able to pursue music but can’t fit it in their schedules, she has added an after-school music program.

Pitt-Smith notes that he has been trying to extend his program outside of the music classroom. “We also try to do workshops and in-services, where we push into our special day classes, and our inclusion program students, for kids with special needs, who don’t normally get the same kind of offerings, in terms of electives, that mainstream students do,” he said. “That’s kind of a crime in inequity, to me, that I’m trying to address in my own school. But I think it’s a ubiquitous problem around the district.”

Students at Edna Brewer have to qualify academically in order to be able to take electives, which is a form of tracking, Pitt-Smith said. He compared the curriculum offerings to a balanced diet. “‘Here’s a plate of food—it’s equally balanced for a delicious diet and good for your body,’” he said. “’However, you, child, are deficient in protein, so we’re going to take away the potassium and give you more protein.’ It’s not right. And there’s a problem with that.”

“I think our job in the elementary school and the middle school is to really instill a life-long love for music,” said Pitt-Smith. “And more than the technical skill.”

Music class also brings students to school, said Alvarez, offering them something exciting to look forward to. “There’s a few students I have who don’t come to school except for music,” said Alvarez. “So it improves their attendance, which is a huge one. Because if they’re not here, obviously it hurts them in a lot of different ways.”

And for a student like Cal’Vion, it’s part of a dream for a future career. When he grows up, he says, he wants to “have my own music group and start my own music video.”

For now, as he finishes up playing, with each beat he looks at the drum set in absolute concentration. And when his piece ends, his fingers continue twirling the drumsticks, not completely finished playing.

Click here to learn more about the music program at Edna Brewer Middle School.
Click here to learn more about the music program at Roots Academy.


  1. […] 51Oakland gives to OUSD music programs […]

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