During Mardi Gras, everyone knows the excitement that goes through paradegoers when they first hear the drums and the horns from an approaching parade. The floats and the costumes may be gorgeous. But the bands set the tempo for Carnival.
All across the South, this town is known for its drum majors, who dance, strut and lead the bands on and off the field ("The Majors," Feb. 17). And those drum majors lead bands unlike any other city's -- bands that pride themselves on their sound, clean lines, high steps, swinging horns and twirling drumsticks. These are bands that know how to entertain.
But long after Mardi Gras is over, these bands are doing much more for our community. Through school bands, kids are learning to express themselves, to speak another language -- music. "It's a way to reach a child," says O. Perry Walker band director Larry Birden, Jr., who then shows his students how to translate their successes in band to the classroom. "I have kids who memorize 15 to 30 songs," says Birden, "and I tell them, 'There's no way you can't memorize a lesson in math or reading. It's the same muscles.'"
So how can we tolerate the fact that most of our public school bands have to fundraise all year long to buy even the basics, like instruments, uniforms or a computer for the bandroom? "My school has not spent one single solitary penny on band," says George Washington Carver High School band director Wilbert Rawlins. We'd like to see more local corporations, krewes and clubs follow the lead of the Tipitina's Foundation, which in two years has raised more than $40,000 for marching bands through its Instruments A'Comin benefit.
The pay-offs from being in band can last a lifetime. Rawlins, a graduate of John F. Kennedy Senior High School, went to Southern University on a full band scholarship. He often reminds his students of this. "I tell my kids that if you can play your instrument, you can continue your education free of charge," he says.
The idea itself opens up doors, says Rawlins. "Some of them see life as so hard. They see their parents scuffling to make a living." It's exciting for kids to understand that these instruments, which they love playing, can take them to college, where they can become a nurse or a doctor or an engineer.
Bands also deserve consideration for the role they play in keeping students engaged during vital after-school hours. Research shows that, on school days between the so-called "dangerous hours" of 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., unsupervised adolescents are more likely to smoke, drink, use drugs and have sex. In New Orleans, nearly two-thirds of kids have working parents -- that translates into 58,000 potentially unsupervised children. For kids in marching band, school ends and marching band practice begins. At Carver, practice starts at 3:45 p.m. "Before you look up, it's 6," says Rawlins, "and the kids are saying, 'Let's play one more number.'"
This week, the Greater New Orleans Out-of-School Time Collaborative and the Mayor's Office of Technology will launch a new Web site: Neworleansafterschool.com. This is one step in a larger plan to get more local kids involved in out-of-school activities. The Collaborative, which is housed at Dillard University, began a few years ago thanks to local groups including Baptist Community Ministries. The Collaborative wanted an analysis of what New Orleans was offering its school-age kids, ages 5 to 19, and found 483 local programs in its 2002 inventory. Only 7 percent serve children 13 and older. A mere 2 percent serve those older than 16.
Overall in New Orleans, 18 percent of our school-age kids participate in after-school programs. Compare that with Boston and Detroit, where city-wide collaborations will soon create spaces for 50 percent of their students. As the city council's Recreation Committee heard on Jan. 28, those cities' efforts were led cooperatively with schools, recreation departments and funders. It's time to create a mayoral task force here in New Orleans, urged Susan Sellers, head of the Collaborative, and Jonathan Bertsch, a mayoral fellow working on the project, speaking at the Jan. 28 meeting. A task force could put the force of the school board, the council, the mayor's office and local funders behind these efforts. Parents and students on the task force could scrutinize the plan to make sure that it fits the community's needs.
Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson's office confirms that she will, on Feb. 19, introduce a resolution creating a Out-of-School Time task force. The council would then vote on it on March 4. We urge them to vote yes, and to demand that a current band director sit on that task force. That way, the results will be in tune with our musical community.