by Amber F. Kenis
I very clearly remember my first day of teaching. After a meeting with my new administrators, one of them offered to walk me over to my band room. I followed him outside of the school building, across the grass field and towards the tin shed that held the school’s lawn mower, maintenance tools, and old lunchroom tables. This shed, which was not equipped with Internet, cell reception, bathroom facilities, a chalkboard, or even enough chairs for my students, was to be my new band room. Any idea of performing Holst’s First Suite and competing at festivals quickly went out the cobweb-covered door. I realized that I quite literally needed to build my program from the ground up.
My decision to join the Teach for America (TFA) program after college seemed like an easy one, but I soon realized that the job was not going to be as easy. TFA assigned me to teach in the Mississippi Delta, one of the most impoverished areas in the United States. I did not have the resources that many directors believe are basic necessities. However, this experience proved to be invaluable, and the lessons I learned were implemented when I moved to the south suburbs of Chicago. I faced similar challenges growing a ten-student, pay-to-play band program into a reputable program with multiple ensembles and more than 260 students. Many of these students are first-generation immigrants from the Middle East or Europe and many of the families speak English as a second language. Although both of these experiences challenged me as an educator, I have truly enjoyed them. Building these programs has taught me many key lessons that I wish I would have known before entering the music education field and working in Title I Schools.
It’s Not Your Program
In order to get chairs, instruments, and other basic items for my program, I needed to start creating connections with the community. As a newcomer, this was a bit of a challenge at first. The town was extremely close-knit, because the families had farmed the same land for generations. I contacted online magazines, community newspapers, churches, and disbanded community bands and quickly received over $20,000 worth of materials and financial contributions my first year. Students made handwritten thank-you cards in order to reiterate to the donors that their contributions were directly benefitting the students. These thank you cards convinced many donors to give more than once. I also encouraged alumni, family, and friends to shop around at garage sales. Some directors are weary of this, but if you emphasize that sometimes a$20 tuba can result in an unfortunate $400 repair, people will contact you with prospects before buying. Some of my first acquaintances were the owners of nearby pawn and thrift shops, since I left all of them my contact information. I found that if you make contact with them frequently, they will call you to make quick turnovers on merchandise and may even ask you for your expertise in exchange for a discount. It was also very important to establish an open, honest relationship with the school’s music company. Their success depended on my success and they were able to provide me with resources and connections to help build the program.
There are two free websites that I use to facilitate donations from unknown donors. DonorsChoose.org allows for teachers to safely put up projects that display classroom pictures and stories. It categorizes the teacher’s classroom by subject, grade level, and socioeconomic status so that donors can easily search for a specific project to sponsor. Teachers facilitate these projects by requesting specific materials for their classroom. Donors can give money or gift cards to a desired teacher to complete a project. In fact, posting projects around holidays is extremely effective, because many corporations are now giving DonorsChoose.org gift cards to their employers at that time and receive tax deduction bonuses for their charity. Donors can also request to receive handmade thank you cards and pictures of the students with their new materials after the project is completed. All of this is done through a safe website where teachers can have parents sign a photo waiver. Adoptaclassroom.org is a similar website that allows teachers a safe method to post pictures and request items in exchange for tax deductions. Both websites are registered nonprofits and are specifically designed for teachers to safely accept donations from outside sources.
For additional monetary options, look into fundraising programs. There are plenty of opportunities that offer more reward than work. Before deciding on a specific fundraiser, make sure that you are picking something that is feasible for your clientele. Ask yourself: Would it benefit families to be able to purchase items online with a credit card? Are families more likely to purchase perishable or nonperishable items? Can you work with a community business? Analyze additional factors such as profit ratio, shipping costs, and availability of prepackaging, especially if you are a traveling teacher who works at many schools. Also, see if you can go with a business in your community. Working with family businesses is a great way to foster a relationship that could support you in a financial endeavor down the road. For example, my students played at a family-owned restaurant, and 15 percent of the profits that evening were donated to the band program. At each concert, I include a list of all donors in the program. This builds a sense of ownership and commitment throughout the entire community.
It is also important for your administrators to feel a sense of ownership with the program as well. As teachers, we cannot force someone support our program, but we can provide our administrations with the opportunities to develop a connection. Ask your administration to be more physically involved in your performances, not just through attendance. Provide a pre-written speech for an administrator to give at a concert detailing the growth of the band throughout the semester. Ask your students to make personal concert invitations to teachers and administrators. Remember, it’s not your program. It’s the entire community’s program.
Quantity vs. Quality in Band Recruitment
While getting the community involved and obtaining donations are important, none of it will matter if you don’t have students in the program. For me, quantity became of the utmost importance. When I began my current position in the south suburbs of Chicago, I traveled to all five schools and talked to the students during lunchtime. Instrument demonstrations were given in the elementary art and music classrooms before registration night. Posters were hung with a picture of myself dressed as Uncle Sam declaring “We Want You To Join Band!” I reassured students and parents that any financial concerns related to participating in band would be dealt with individually and discreetly, which helped build a sense of trust. I also sent home letters to parents in multiple languages. Two weeks before registration night, I left chocolates and a personal thank you note in every fourth and fifth grade teacher’s mailbox. Teachers were more willing to work with scheduling issues and were happier to help me distribute important papers home after I properly thanked them.
After the first year, we started bringing the middle school band to play at the elementary buildings for a day. Students performed interactive songs like We Will Rock You and The Hey Song, to which the audience could easily shout or clap along. Prospective students saw the band program as something that was engrossing and welcoming. Current band students also answered questions from the audience, which made the whole tour more student driven. The students were sending the message that band was a place where everyone was welcome, and this supportive morale allowed me to push the program further.
After I was able to get students into the program, the next step was to keep them in the program. Retention is a never-ending process, but by establishing trust with the students, I was able to challenge them more and more. We started working on more sophisticated, complex music. The administration allowed us to split the students into four ensembles, and placement was audition based. Instead of giving only two performances throughout the year, our students began to perform in a wide variety of settings. For example, our students performed at Solo and Ensemble, Fine Arts Night, and even a Chicago Wolves hockey game. Additionally, the top ensemble performed at Band-O-Rama, a competitive music festival, where they received “Best of Class” two years in a row. This past year, 40 of the 43 students who participated in Solo and Ensemble received Division I ratings. In preparing for these events, the students developed and refined their playing ability. Now in its third year, the program has a 95 percent retention rate.
You’re Not Alone
Great accomplishments don’t always look the same. Success for one program may mean state championships and Division I ratings. In another program, simply providing at-risk teens the opportunity to learn an instrument may change a life. Our programs don’t always start out with the necessary resources for “success,” but it’s our job to make it happen. However, this isn’t a process that needs to be done alone. In an age when everything and everyone is becoming more connected, it can seem at times that music education is stuck in the past. The reality is that the student population and the demands of this profession are changing. We need to have the tools and resources to adapt to these changes. Be honest about your needs and find a mentor who understands your challenges. Contact NBA or NAfME if you cannot find one. Prioritize what is in your control and ask for help through donations. Nominate peer teachers who are doing miraculous things with their programs but may not always receive recognition because their programs look different. Most importantly, do what is best for your students so that you can provide them with an outstanding music education, even if it means building from the ground up.
AMBER KENIS has overcome a wide variety of challenges in diverse, low-income communities to build lasting influential programs. She is currently the Director of Bands for Ridgeland School District #122 in Oak Lawn, Illinois. In her current position, she founded the band program as an academic class and helped it grow from a pay-to-play after school activity to an award-winning program. The top ensemble received “Best of Class” two years in a row at a nearby band festival, Band-O-Rama. The program began with only ten students and in three years, has grown to over four ensembles with 260 students in grades 5-8.
Prior to coming to Oak Lawn, Kenis taught 6th-12th grade band and high school choir as a 2011 Teach for America (TFA), Mississippi Delta Corps Member. She rebuilt a high school choir program, a newly established band program, and founded the district’s first ever marching band. Both programs grew twice their size and are currently running successfully. She was chosen by the TFA regional staff to teach a fall course of professional development on curriculum, behavior management, diversity and cultural competencies within communication, and rehearsal strategies. Her success in the Delta brought her a nomination for a Teach for America award for her excellence in teaching.
In addition to working in Title I Schools, Kenis has worked with the Lincoln-Way Community High School and School District (IL) as a pit orchestra director and brass technician for their marching band. Kenis graduated from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign with a degree in Instrumental Music Education in 2011.
As published in the National Band Association Journal.