Battle of the Bands

Kids march towards a better future.Fighting declining interest and funding woes, two HISD high schools offer kids an oom pah pah way to better futures

Beyond the bright green door to Room 1018 ­— the one with the "Support Our Band" sticker — Renford Joseph stands with arms crossed, in the middle of one of his long-winded diatribes directed at a group of kids on the floor.

Twenty-one members of the Worthing High School band, all wearing white T-shirts and green gym shorts, are in push-up position, instruments at their sides.

"If y'all are going to hurt my ears, I'm going to hurt your arms," says Joseph, the band's director.

Photo by Chasen Marshall
Fitness was a big part of band camp at Austin. Daily workouts included push-ups, sit-ups, jump shots, Suicides and jumping jacks.
Photo by Chasen Marshall
Fitness was a big part of band camp at Austin. Daily workouts included push-ups, sit-ups, jump shots, Suicides and jumping jacks.

Kiera Bashay tries to hold strong. Her back is flat and her elbows locked, but her arms are beginning to shake. Her soft brown eyes are set on a spot directly beneath her head; her gold saxophone is on the chair behind her feet. Though others have their butts in the air or knees touching the ground, her positioning is as it should be. She's only a junior, but she's one of the leaders, and can't be seen slacking. The band graduated 16 seniors in the 2010 class, and this year they have only five. Others must step up. Joseph has challenged her to do so.

Plus, she's in the front row, and Joseph loves to prolong punishments.

"Band season has begun," continues Joseph, as his eyes scan the group, "understand y'all, summer is over." They have less than a month before their first football game.

Last year, 837 high school bands competed in University Interscholastic League competitions statewide, and only four of those schools were from the Houston Independent School District. According to Walter Smith of the HISD Fine Arts Department, who had been overseeing the high school curriculum until recently, 20 high schools have band programs, but because many of those programs have seen a "drastic cut" in the number of participants, few programs have been sending their bands to UIL competitions. To bolster the declining programs, and to help prep them for returning to UIL competition, HISD reinstituted its annual Marching Band Festival.

The festival is coming up on its third year on October 9 at Delmar Stadium and Smith hopes it will attract more than the ten schools that performed last year.

In the closing days of summer, it's customary for bands to rework and reload for the upcoming school year, beginning at band camp. Some bands never take a break, some start a week before school starts, others just pick up where they left off on the first day of school. Worthing and Austin High are two HISD bands that started up weeks before school.

Like student-athletes or anyone involved with extracurricular activities, band members commit extra hours to practice time, competitions and fund-raising. This tests a student's time management and discipline, because at both Austin and Worthing, students must also maintain adequate grades in order to perform.

"No one wants to work as hard as we do and then not get to go out at halftime," says ­Keavon Runnels, 32, the band director at ­Austin.

At the end of July, Worthing, which is located in Sunnyside in south Houston, is into its third week of band camp, and its numbers fluctuate from day to day. Along with ­Bashay, there is a group of 15 to 18 who show up consistently; the rest is a rotating group of faces. Joseph was expecting more to come. Most of the uncommitted are freshmen, unsure of whether or not band is for them.

The 31-year-old Joseph is less concerned with hurting feelings than he is with molding his students into competent and disciplined musicians. Last year he whittled the band down from a group in the 40s to 32. But a year ago, at band camp, the group was smaller than the one on the ground in front of him now. His methods are not all about the music. "A lot of these kids, they come from backgrounds where there's no discipline at home, no structure, single-parent homes, no parents at home," he says. "I'm all they have at this point."

Joseph is entering his fifth year as the band director at Worthing, a school that is 91 percent African-American. He has a long history with music, dating back to the eighth grade, when his mom forced him to join band.

For Joseph, though, his position means more than getting to joke with the kids and listen to music every day. He knows that the band is reason No. 1 many of these kids are still in school.
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It's no secret that Houston-area high schools have issues. A 2007 report conducted by Johns Hopkins University listed 22 of the 38 HISD charter and public high schools as "dropout factories" ­— schools with an attrition rate of 40 percent or higher. Both Worthing and Austin were included. Aside from that infamous list, in 2008 and 2009, Worthing was rated "Academically Unacceptable" by the Texas Education Agency; this year it rose to "Academically Acceptable." Austin — which is located in the Greater Eastwood area, just miles east of downtown — received a high rating of "Recognized" in the 2010 report.

Schools also deal with lackluster or unequal funding. HISD is a decentralized district; the disbursement of funds is dictated by the individual school and its administration. So if a band needs new uniforms and instruments, funds are not guaranteed.

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