Music is back at Kennedy High School

Kennedy music teacher, Margaret Billin, and her students during a piano lesson. (Photo By Mike Milano)

Kennedy music teacher, Margaret Billin, and her students during a piano lesson. (Photo By Mike Milano)

For three years, the music room at Kennedy High has been silent. And almost a decade has passed since Kennedy has had a comprehensive program. Last spring, Dolores Dalton, mother of three, and the leader of what’s called the Music at Kennedy Committee, scheduled a Saturday cleanup, aimed at the long closed music room. What the seven volunteers, including two Kennedy students, who showed up saw when they unlocked those doors was daunting.

The music room, roughly the size of a basketball court with equally high ceilings, was piled to the rafters with old furniture and debris. It had become a dumping ground for the unwanted. After three hours of hauling out the wreckage, the volunteers were able to open the cabinets and closets. What they found astonished them.

There were 75 choir robes hanging neatly in the closet. There was an entire set of marching band uniforms, in perfect condition. There were nine pianos, thirty-five brass instruments, drums, and nearly twenty keyboards.

“We were blown away by the quality of the equipment and the fact that there was so much there,” Dalton said. “And we were so saddened that it had all been there and hadn’t been in the student’s hands for years.”

When you walk into that room at Kennedy now, the lively sounds of eager students fill the space. The rebirth of Kennedy’s music program is the product of a strong community effort combined with a passionate new principal, Philip Johnson.

“When I went to high school you had sports, education, and your music program all intermingled,” Johnson said. “I remember going to football and basketball games and the band was there doing their thing. I think it completes the whole process, school culture is something I think is very important.”

Of the six comprehensive high schools in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, Kennedy was the only one without a music program. That changed when Dalton, an advocate for music in schools throughout the East Bay, met Mike Peritz, a retired Kennedy teacher of 33 years. Peritz runs the Eagle Foundation, a non-profit made up of people who care about Kennedy and strive towards greater educational equality in Richmond. Together, they gathered a coalition of people who petitioned the school board and soon after, music was back at Kennedy.

Students now have the opportunity to explore their musical predilections by taking piano, drums, guitar, band and choir. Johnson believes that music is an essential part of school culture and immediately sought to prioritize the program.

The school conducted a national search for the right teacher. Johnson interviewed five candidates. Margaret Billin was the last one. “Ms. Billin was a godsend. When she started she was here all day, staying into the night. She was able to get the program going and that was huge,” Johnson said.

Despite the equipment the volunteers unearthed last spring, the program was still desperately in need of instruments and materials. Since she started in July, Billin has doubled the number of instruments through donations from non-profits including Donors Choose, Little Kids Rock and San Francisco Smile. Now there are almost 125 students learning to play piano on twenty-three electric keyboards, which cost about $125 a piece.

But there is still a lot of work to do. With class sizes upwards of forty students there is not enough equipment to go around. “Sharing a keyboard with a partner is kind of like sharing one piece of paper to draw overlapping pictures,” Billin said.

The drum classes use buckets as instruments, and drum sticks that Billin purchased herself. When they need to play more quietly, they place squares of carpet on top of the buckets.

Students at Kennedy are excited about music. Shane Mace, in 12th grade said, “I’ve always wanted to learn some type of instrument but never had the opportunity.” Mace said that the music classes have given students a new outlet for personal expression and another medium in which to push themselves. “It helps [students] to see how diligent they are, because in music it takes a lot of practice to get it right,” Mace said.

Luisa Fuentas, an 11th grade student, said that music class is a welcome break from sitting and listening to teachers all day. “Ms. Billin makes it interesting, we get to learn music that’s on the radio.”

At Kennedy, they hope to build on the momentum of this year.  In October, the drumline and band had the opportunity to attend a U.C. Berkeley home football game. The high school students got to sit in the stands with the Cal marching band as they performed throughout the game. At halftime, they accompanied the Cal marching band onto the field for the halftime show. The excited Kennedy students watched the performance from the sidelines, in front of about 63,000 fans.

But challenges persist. “My biggest concern right now is sustainability,” Johnson said, “Ms. Billin was able to start the program with nothing, getting instruments donated here and there. She was able to start the program, but I am worried about what happens next year.”

“There’s never enough money,” Dalton said. “I think community support is the essential ingredient, and with music you have built in methods to do that. You have concerts and families will come if their child is playing music.”

The district is taking steps to build that community. Of the seven elementary schools that feed into Kennedy High, two do not have music programs. School Board Member, Todd Groves said, “We feel that music and art are essential for student growth. All elementary schools will have a [music] program in 2014-15.”

“What the district has taken on is ambitious,” Peritz said. “Everything is fragile, you have to have visible change happening. It is improving.”

For Joseph Malepai, a 12th grader in Billin’s class, the music program takes on greater meaning. He said, “For me, music is everything. Music expresses people’s feelings, their personalities, and their individuality. Music draws me to a deeper level, I love music.”

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