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Buffalo schools officials and students address concerns, desires for music education

Nick Lippa

The eighth floor at City Hall was crowded for a school board meeting Wednesday night as several speakers, many Hutchinson Technical High School alumni, came to voice their concerns about the state of music education in the Buffalo Public Schools. The Buffalo Teachers Federation recently announced it would be moving forward with litigation by the end of the month because it believes certain schools are not compliant with art and music state regulations. But district officials want to make it clear they support arts education.

Several Hutch Tech High School alums came to the meeting after hearing through their peers that certain music classes were no longer being offered.

“We want to commend students for their passion and for their eloquence. The way they spoke about the issues, we share a lot of their viewpoints,” said Superintendent Kriner Cash.

Cash said he and the board are relentless advocates for music and arts education.

“I’ve never cut music and arts anywhere I’ve ever been and haven’t done it here,” he said.

It’s true from an overall district perspective. The Buffalo Public Schools have not cut music and arts staffing. According to board member Larry Scott they have increased by five music teachers and four art teachers since last year.

Credit Larry Scott / Facebook

But most teachers, parents and students who have recently spoken out are not upset because of the threat of overall position cuts. Their concern is the allocation of resources. Several schools in Buffalo don’t have music teachers on site including Leonardo Da Vinci High School and McKinley High School. While each have an art class, those supporting litigation believe not having both music and art offerings violates state regulations.

Cash acknowledged there are still some gaps in high school and said they will continue to address those issues.

“There are some requirements and there are some rather confusing state education requirements differences between having comprehensive band and ensembles and the time you need to schedule and require classes for getting credit for the rehearsals for those programs. That is something that I would like us to understand better,” Cash said.

Hutch Tech, which has two music teachers on site, has received criticism for not having music programs in the schedule and recently removing jazz band before school.

Hutch Tech Principal Gabrielle Morquecho said there have been miscommunications across the board.

“People are using the word cut and the Hutch Tech band program is the same band program that has been offered for years and years and years, well before me,” Morquecho said.

Cash said a big challenge is finding room in a schedule for students at a school like Hutch Tech to meet all their requirements for their degrees.

“There’s only so many periods in a day, particularly in some of our high schoos," Cash said. "So we try to work out win-win compromises.”

Hutch Tech being an engineering high school means students have specific requirements to fulfill for their Regents degree.

“It’s got amazing programs that are offered, but they’re double blocks and sometimes triple blocks. The students get enrolled in the program. In ninth grade they all take a CTE class. And in tenth and eleventh grade and twelfth grade, they follow a sequence according to the CTE program that the kids chose with their parents,” Morquecho said.

Once students follow that progression, they are keeping with the engineering CTE program in addition to the requirements around the four core classes: English, Social Studies, Math and Science.

“As well as physical education, as well as all the other requirements to make sure that we’re offering kids a rigorous coursework,” Morquecho added. “Making sure that we’re offering them electives and well-rounded courses that they are interested in.”

The Hutch Tech band program of years past, run by former teacher Ben Boyar, would work with students before and after school. Current teacher Amy Steiner has done the same in past years. Morquecho said it takes a creative scheduling process to make things work.

“I know it’s not easy. I admit that. Our former band teacher (Boyar) somehow became a master at this,” she said. “And kids were constantly rotated throughout their course so that they weren’t missing their required courses, but that they could work with the general education teachers in order to schedule kids for lessons and whatever groups that they were instructing.”

This has led to a grey area where former Hutch Tech students like Ariana Jones say they received a music credit for their Advanced Regents degree by having a one-minute period in the schedule, known as thirteenth period.

“The thirteenth period, it wasn’t really a period. It was more so to fit a class that didn’t fit in to the schedule, in to the schedule so to speak. It was either to be held either before school or after school or during your lunch or during a study hall. Really, whenever you could go,” Jones said.

Jones said the only way they could get their credit for band was through this process, with no band class available during normal school hours.

Recent Hutch Tech graduate Jadon Minter said chorus has had a place in the schedule in the past, but was removed from its set time during period three while he was in school. He said he eventually faced questions about if he would receive credit for the class.

“Nobody meets in unity. Everybody meets at separate times. And even while this is happening senior year, they were putting my credit in to question even though I’ve been doing it since junior year,” Minter said.

Destinee Minier, another Hutch Tech graduate, had a similar problems with access to the class.

“They didn’t even have period three for everyone. So when I was there junior year, I was in period three, other people weren’t. Senior year, I wasn’t in period three at all. And that was really hard for me because that was the only thing that got me through the day,” Minier said.

This is where the teachers' union and the district disagree. One side is saying this kind of scheduling is normal for a technical school like Hutch Tech and thus they are compliant with state regulations, while the other believes these schools need art and music classes during everyday school hours.

Before the board meeting, former students who signed up to speak say Hutch Tech Assistant Principal Pedro Estrada reached out to them in an effort to clear up some misconceptions.

Minier said what she heard from Estrada differed from what she heard from current students.

“They were saying that it’s basically still the same. Like it went back to how it was, like my freshman year, like how it was before and after schools, which it’s not. And that they can go up during their study halls and lunches which they’re not allowed to right now. Because I’ve heard from other students that they are not allowed to,” Minier said.

Jones, who had both Ben Boyer and Amy Steiner as a teacher, said it was hard for both teachers to advocate for the music program.

Credit Kyle Mackie / WBFO
Ariana Jones speaking to the school board

“Not only to have music be in the schedule, but also just for our band to perform at things such as pep rallies, football games, or anything like that,” Jones said.  

One thing all parties involved have agreed on—arts and music education is important. Minter said he would have dropped out of school if not for chorus at Hutch Tech.

“I’ve been kicked out the house twice senior year. At that point I was ready to say I’m done. I’m done with school. The one thing, it’s not only music, it’s the teachers as well. They kept telling me I’m meant for something better than this and I need to keep striving and see what I can do. I’m a business administration major at ECC, which is a lot considering that I didn’t want to go to college, let alone high school,” Minter said.

Luriann Stephan, the choral teacher at Hutch Tech, created an atmosphere for Minter where he felt wanted in school. She was a recent hire by Principal Morquecho.

While Minter valued his time at Hutch Tech, he offered criticism for the model in how students pick their high schools.

“Our school system is not the best. We’re expected to plan our lives out by choosing a high school to go to. From there we got to choose a major to major in. And that’s supposed to plan out our lives for us. And that’s a lot of stress considering that when you are entering high schools you are like 14 or 15. You can’t plan out a life up to 45 with the information you have now,” Minter said.

One other reason the students came out? A passion for their teacher Amy Steiner. They all say it’s a benefit to have her available for classes during regular school hours.

Jones had Steiner for only one year, but said she helped her develop in to the music student she is today.

“She didn’t really know me, but when I was auditioning for Buffalo State, she introduced me to another professor and he set me up with a bass teacher,” Jones said. “Through her was how I did my audition process and she coached me and everything. She didn’t know me. She didn’t know anything about me, where I came from, who I was. But she helped me because she cared about each and every one of her students equally.”

High School was a difficult time for Noah Reed-Eason, a fellow Hutch Tech graduate. He had several deaths in the family and had a grandmother who was and still is very sick.

“I always had music there to help cheer me up. Help me get my mind straight. Help me stay focused and wants me to push. Like, what do I want to achieve? I want to become something great and that’s why I found music,” Reed-Eason said.

Reed-Eason is now majoring in music education at Buffalo State.

The person who might best be able to summarize what it means to have that dedicated music teacher in the classroom during the day and outside it is Neasheem Godfrey. The connection she made through music at Hutch Tech, like several others there Wednesday night, changed her life.

“The band program was cut in my elementary school in about sixth grade. One of my actual music teachers, she’s like, ‘Okay I know you like doing this. I can’t personally teach you how to play clarinet, but if I got one for you, you’re going to have to teach yourself.’ So I had to teach myself how to play. When I got to high school, that’s when I met Ariana and Noah. It’s like wow, I can actually play with these guys. But it wasn’t until my junior year, Ms. Steiner came,” she said.

“Around that time, my family we were going through issues as well. I didn’t want to go (to school). Ms. Steiner was like, ‘Okay you don’t want to come to school? I am going to make you.’ So she came to my house, got me out of bed. She goes, ‘Okay we are going to do this together. We are going to work with you.’ I call her my mom now because that’s kind of what she is. Most birth, biological parents, they expect you to already know that they are proud of you and that they believe in you. Sometimes they won’t say it, but it just takes that one person to say hey I believe in you we’re going to do this. My senior year, I completely forgot about everything. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to drop out. (Steiner) is like, ‘Okay. I know what we’re going to do. You like music? We are going to get you in to Buffalo State. So she kind of worked with me and showed me that while I have actual talent versus the kids at Buffalo State. I was told my freshman year that Buffalo State shouldn’t let in certain kids because they weren’t brought up with music (like) private lessons. That really hurt me. You shouldn’t put people down because of their misfortunate. Ms. Steiner, she then came to Buffalo State and said I’m going to work with you," Godfrey recounted.

"(Music) is just really important because you never know what you get out of that in the end.”

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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