The Austin Chronicle

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Kashmere HS Marching Band Saves Texas Schools?

By Abby Johnston, February 22, 2013, 4:20pm, Earache!

With legislative discourse choking public education, activists, parents, and students descend on the capitol tomorrow for Save Texas Schools. The rally runs noon-1:30pm, but the march on state government begins at the Congress Ave. Bridge, 10:45am, led by the Kashmere HS Marching Band, descended from the famous Houston funkestra.

Saturday’s firing lines are clear – less testing and no more budget cuts, two issues that already have support under the dome. Former Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott has called the current standardized testings regime, which now eats 28 to 45 days each school year, “a perversion of the original intent.” Meanwhile, with a mystery multi-billion dollar surplus partially bankrolled by underfunded public education programs, activists want to know if the money will return bygone programs.

The Kashmere Marching Band’s performance at the rally raises a valid concern. The conversation surrounding arts in public schools has fallen backseat to school closures and job cuts, but it’s one worth revisiting. Music, art, and theater programs are generally the first on the chopping block when dollars come up short. Some will have access to private instruction in these areas, but many students are left without access to any kind of arts education, including music. Legislators and school boards at the state and local levels need to remember the impact one jazz band – the original Kashmere Stage Band – had on a community.

In the late Sixties, musician and composer Conrad O. Johnson took a job as music director at Kashmere High School, located in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Over the next decade, he took the predominantly black, struggling jazz band and transformed it into a funk dynasty. They swept competitions, recorded original compositions, and became known throughout Texas as a force to be reckoned with. Subject of an acclaimed documentary, KSB demonstrated a dedication to musical education that carries through today, with original members of the 25-piece funk orchestra still touring.

There’s a similar story brewing on Staten Island in PS22’s Young@Heart choir. Founded in 2000, Gregg Breinberg (Mr. B) directs a chorus of elementary school singers that have become an Internet sensation. They’ve covered everything from Tori Amos to Maroon 5, and guested with Passion Pit, Stevie Nicks, and Beyonce. The pint-sized powerhouse has begun the push to rejuvenate public school funding for arts programs. Similar to the KSB, Young@Heart comes from a low-income area. Both exist because of strong and sure leadership – Breinberg and Johnson – that helped push the students to success.

Public school funding remains a serious issue with many immediate pulls. We need educators across the board, including in the arts. There’s an entire generation of untapped talent that could turn into tomorrow’s musical greats. If only they get the chance.

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