Longfellow Arts and Music Classes at Risk

By Paul Gackle
Thursday December 10, 2009 - 09:16:00 AM
The Longfellow Middle School Jazz Band, one of the at-risk classes, rehearses for the Winter Arts Fest.
Paul Gackle
The Longfellow Middle School Jazz Band, one of the at-risk classes, rehearses for the Winter Arts Fest.

A hip, jazzed-up version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” blared out of the classroom. Layers of sound—clarinets, saxophone, trombone, piano and drums—harmonized almost perfectly in the familiar Christmas tune. The Longfellow Middle School Jazz Band, a collection of sixth, seventh and eighth graders, was rehearsing for the last time before their big Winter Arts Fest performance tonight (Thursday). They were excited, some a little nervous. But as the kids tuned up for the show, most were completely unaware that it could very well be the band’s final performance. 

For over a decade, Longfellow Arts and Technology Middle School has offered a unique set of performance arts classes as part of their after-school enrichment program, attracting students from all across Berkeley. But this year a perfect storm of variables has left a shortfall in the program’s budget, putting some of Longfellow’s one-of-a-kind classes, like the Jazz Band, at risk of being cut in January. Now, as midnight approaches, a group of parents are racing to raise the funds needed to save the classes. 

“If we get together and make our sentiments known, maybe the funds can be found,” said Mimi Chin, one of the parents who is leading the campaign. 

Soon after the state budget passed last spring, it became apparent that some of the most popular classes offered in Longfellow’s after-school program were in jeopardy. 

First, the program cycled out of a five-year federal grant that had brought in roughly $50,000 a year. Then, they received a cutback in state grant money because of an after- school attendance shortfall (a point that is currently being appealed). And finally, cutbacks in the state budget that trickled down to Longfellow forced the PTA and the school governance council to spend money typically allocated to the after-school program to plug holes elsewhere. All in all, Longfellow's after-school program lost over a third of its spending money this year.  

Emily Nathan, program supervisor of Berkeley L.E.A.R.N.S After-School Programs and the budget manager of every after-school program in the Berkeley Unified School District, said she only had room to cover the basic ingredients of an after-school program at Longfellow this year. The program will continue to provide students with after-school tutoring, a variety of athletic opportunities and an array of enrichment classes from drama to drawing, but two classes that have helped make the school’s program special, the most expensive classes—jazz band and steel drums—will be sliced later this winter if additional money isn’t raised. The Dance Club is on the chopping block for next year. 

“There is not a lot of extra money to play with. This year’s budget covers the skeleton of the program,” said Nathan. “Our main focus is still academic support. We can’t have a jazz band and no homework center.” 

For almost 15 years, Jeff Narell has provided kids without any musical experience the opportunity to learn how to play an instrument in his steel drums class. Steel drums, or steel pans, is a form of music that originated in the Western Caribbean; panists create a full range of beats, rhythms, pitches and melodies by pounding on recycled oil drums in an assemble, like a percussion orchestra. At Longfellow, the kids get to choose songs—anything from Michael Jackson to TV show tunes—and Narrell arranges them into percussion melodies for the band to play.  

“Kids who don’t have the money or training to take part in the other musical offerings at the school take my class,” Narell said. “Most of these kids have never played before and then they are out there performing in only a few months. To lose that, I’ll find another school where I can teach, but a lot of these kids will be deprived of their only musical experience.” 

For students who do have experience playing instruments, the Longfellow jazz band can be a stepping stone toward careers in music. Graduates of the Longfellow band have a tradition of going on to play at Berkeley High School, which has one of the country’s most renowned high school jazz programs. From there, some have received scholarships to attend world-class music schools, like the Manhattan School of Music and the Berklee College of Music. Eventually, many will play locally enriching the live music experience in the Bay Area.  

“This will really hurt Berkeley High and the Bay Area music scene,” said Ajayi “Lumumba” Jackson, instructor of the Longfellow Jazz Band and a well-respected Bay Area jazz musician. “This school is a cornerstone in the Bay Area musical heritage.” 

The quality of Longfellow’s after school performance arts program is a reflection of the vision and dedication of Tina Lewis, the program’s coordinator from 1999 through last June. Lewis said one reason why she’s promoted performance arts is because they often provide students who tend not to do well in regular classes with another resource for learning.  

“My belief is that arts can support students in an academic way,” she said. “Often times these kids are disenfranchised by the learning process. They think, ‘I can’t do this.’ Over and over again it’s been proven that music can stimulate brain activity. People who participate in music tend to learn. Art is education.” 

Last spring, when it became apparent that funding for some of the arts classes would be cut, Lewis rallied a group of parents to form a sub-committee of the PTA dedicated to fundraising. Parents wrote a grant proposal to the Haas Foundation and sent out letters to over 200 local businesses seeking donations. And they decided to make the Winter Arts Fest, the arts enrichment program’s annual showcase, a fundraiser this year.  

The show starts at 6:30 p.m., Thursday December 10 and will feature performances by the Chamber Ensemble, the Dance club, the Drama club, the Steel Drum Band and the Jazz Band. Attendees will also have the chance to do some Christmas shopping at the gift sale or win a number of prizes in the raffle. The arts committee is seeking monetary donations from those who can’t make it out to the performance, but still want to support the program.  

The committee needs to raise another $8,000 to continue Jazz band and Steel drums in January, but they will need even more to offer them again next year. Ajayi Jackson said saving the classes will require philanthropy from those who want to protect Berkeley’s tradition of producing rich cultural art.  

“We need community support. There are so many jazz lovers in the city of Berkeley who must want to help these children out. We need their help to enrich these kids,” he said.