500-member student band revitalizes struggling Springfield school
When schools are failing, the curriculum needs to make bold, progressive strides to meet the students’ needs. In schools like the High School of Science and Technology in Springfield where the graduation rate has fallen below 50 percent, one program is leading the change.
Captured in a powerful new documentary, SciTech Band: Pride of Springfield, viewers can get an up-close look at the academic and personal impact of this adventurous new music education program.
Springfield band teacher Gary Bernice and associate teachers Shelby Carne and Colleen Peterson harnessed his passion and commitment for their students into a new program: the 500-member SciTech Band. Made up of students who represent the racial and cultural diversity of Springfield, the program enrolls not only the school’s top-performing students, but also takes care to extend its reach to students who are struggling academically.
But it’s a tough job for one teacher and two associates managing 500 students; that’s why the program has helped cultivate leaders in the band’s community to help foster the growth of individuals and the band as a whole. Through its peer mentoring structure, older students who have thrived with the band have the opportunity to mentor younger, inexperienced members in a smaller, more personal setting. This mentorship builds not only stronger students, but stronger leaders.
Bernice sees these effects firsthand. “Students are being transformed, while also changing each other’s lives,” he says. “They’re going to become models in the community, and they’re going to become better in their careers, better parents, and the kinds of leaders in the community that we need.”
And the data is on the band’s side. According to the film, once participants complete two years of the program, they’re twice as likely to graduate as their peers. That’s 500 students, making up one third of the school, with doubled odds of earning a degree. As the program has grown, the graduation rate has risen from 39 percent up into the 50s, continuing to grow every year.
Structured music education has surely helped raise the graduation rate for these students, but equally important is the sense of community. This group of 500 students now has a support system – made up of the network of their peers and all the families that attend their shows. As one student, Jordan Drummer, said in the film, “When I’m playing in a concert, and I look out at the audience, I don’t see people, I see support.”
By taking part in this documentary and broadcasting this experience, Bernice says this is an important role in being an advocate. “You have to raise a lot of money to film a documentary. People ask me, ‘Why not put this money toward the students?’ It’s because the story is so important and people need to hear it,” says Bernice.
Through his work with the SciTech Band, Bernice knows the importance of arts advocacy and how it goes hand-in-hand with his position as a teacher. “The arts is just a tremendous vehicle,” he says. “Seeing the arts used as a vehicle to transform students’ lives and how few vehicles can be used to do that – It’s why there needs to be arts advocacy to support this work.”
The SciTech Band is a great model for the academic and socio-economic benefits of in-depth music education, but is it a unique case? Bernice doesn’t think so.
"Well, how do you replicate me,” said Bernice. “You know, maybe you can replicate other parts of the band program, but how do you replicate me as a teacher?" And in some ways, you can't. But teachers can love their students. So if the teacher is willing to care about students, set high expectations, and realize that the students have what they need but they need to facilitate and unlock it, then this, this can be replicated.”
In an all too familiar trend of school budget cuts, this program is in danger. Funding from the school covers the cost of band teachers; however, the band relies on private donations to purchase instruments for the 99 percent of SciTech Band students who are unable to afford them and the cost of the after school mentoring program. To help keep this program strong, supporters can head over to the documentary’s page to donate directly to the band.