Keeping Music in New Orleans Schools

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — August 20, 2015 2 min read
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It’s been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina passed through the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. It’s been nearly as long since the state-run Recovery School District took over most of the schools in New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm and began turning them over to charter school operators.

Most of the new charter schools were focused on improving academics in a school system that had been rated the state’s second-worst. But many quickly found that there was one other piece of school programming they couldn’t ignore: Music.

In a new special report, Education Week reporters take a look at the state of the New Orleans school system and how changes in the past 10 years have affected children and adults.

One part of the report focuses on tensions around school culture and community in a system that has shifted away from neighborhood-based schools. Music programs, especially marching bands, play an important role. Check it out.

The piece features Rahel Wondwossen, the founding principal at Cohen College Prep, formerly Walter L. Cohen High School. She says it was clear that her school needed a band director, but that that person also had to mesh with the very structured culture at the new charter school. “In many ways finding Riccardo, our band director, was way harder than finding our algebra teacher or chemistry teacher,” she said. She said she was looking for “someone who could do our type of school well and still represent the history of Cohen and build the band.”

Riccardo Emilien, Cohen College Prep’s band director, said that for a high school band leader in New Orleans, the pressure is on. “The band is the biggest ambassador of the school,” he said.

Local watchdog reporting site The Lens found that at the start of the 2012-13 school year, some 46 out of 80 public schools had a full-time music teacher. Lens reporters called every school in New Orleans to gather the information. High schools, most planning to field marching bands, were more likely to have music teachers than were elementary schools. Some schools still lack instruments to meet students’ demand for band programs. The 2012 article finds that while a few schools seem to have lost music teachers, some never had them. And a number of nonprofit extracurricular music programs have sprung up in the city in recent years.

And in 2014, New America Media reported on local parents, educators, politicians, and students who were pushing for more music and arts education in the city’s schools. The article suggests that it is sometimes difficult for parents to determine which schools have music and arts programs. One city council member suggested that the Recovery School District and Orleans Parish School Board should provide music education to each school. But the districts have no direct control over charter schools’ curriculum.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.