Hutch Tech band director questions if BPS is meeting state regulations for music

Apr 5, 2019

Well-developed band programs are often a point of pride for suburban schools while inner-city schools, like Hutchinson Central Technical High School, don’t have band available in the schedule. Amy Steiner, Hutch-Tech’s band director, is questioning if the Buffalo Public Schools have been going against state regulations that say public schools must offer students the opportunity to begin an approved sequence in the arts in ninth grade.

Amy Steiner running a rehearsal with a fraction of her students
Credit WBFO / Nick Lippa

Amy Steiner is a two-time Grammy nominated music educator who has been teaching in the city of Buffalo since 1996. Despite her proven track record, she, like many of her peers, are running in to a problem. They can’t seem to get band in to the school schedule.

“I have three kids that were going to college for music,” Steiner said. “Seniors. They were not allowed to put band in their schedule. They’re going to college for music.”

When it’s not in the schedule, it puts the pressure on students and faculty to rehearse before school, which is easier said than done.

“They need that release every day. They find something else to do. They can’t juggle coming up every lunch period to get in five minutes of playing. Then they get frustrated and then they end up ultimately asking to drop,” Steiner said.

“I beg and I beg and I beg. And I’m able to keep some from the begging,” she said. “I started off this year at 141. I believe right now my roster I’m at about 90.”

New Yok State regulations say public schools must offer students the opportunity to begin an approved sequence in the arts in ninth grade. You can read more about the regulations here.

Steiner asks, if music isn’t an option to have in the schedule, isn’t the BPS failing to meet requirements?

“People who have grown up here in the city, becoming the teachers, becoming the administrators—how do they know any different? I’ve been in this system since the '90s. It hasn’t changed. For heck’s sake, we still get the same $200 budget to run a band program every year,” she said.

In the BPS there are a total of 13 high schools that could have instrumental or classroom music. Six of those programs offer zero music and only two have band in the schedule.

Steiner said funding for arts is then left up to site based management teams, who vote on where the money goes.

“They have to figure out how they are going to spend that money wisely so that they are a school in good standing. So that they’re a school that has enough reading coaches and math and they have to look where their deficiencies are in the school to help those along, as well,” Steiner said.

“Having a site based management team having to choose if they want an arts program doesn’t make any sense. Because they’re not supposed to. They’re just supposed to be given the program,” she said.

This is something suburban schools don’t often have to worry about. Buffalo jazz saxophonist Nelson Rivera’s high school experience gave him the best of both worlds. He entered Hutch-Tech as a freshman in 2000 before moving to Clarence as a junior.

“I knew right away, early on in my education, proud Buffalo Public School student and I knew I was going to go to Hutch-Tech. There was no other option. I was very proud to be there. A lot of my friends where there. I was a product of the Olmsted school system,” Rivera said.

“My band experience at Hutch-Tech was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had given the limited resources to them,” he added.

At the time, legendary BPS music educator Ben Boyer had just arrived to Hutch-Tech.

“In that program he did what he could. It was just him,” Rivera said. “We would meet before school for about an hour as a band. And we would have concert band. And jazz band would also meet before school.”

When Rivera eventually moved to Clarence in the middle of high school, it was a bit of a culture shock.

Nelson Rivera
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

“My family is Puerto Rican, by descent. And I go to Clarence and out of 1,200 students, there’s maybe three or four more of me out there,” Rivera said. “That was not an issue at Hutch-Tech. Diversity was different.”

So what’s the benefit for having band in the schedule every day at a place like Clarence? It gave Rivera a chance to take band more serious.

“Already I was getting to school at 7 a.m. Now I had it third period every day, and that was awesome. The fact that I could now take it as serious as I could physics. There was nothing I would change about that either,” Rivera said. ”It was one of the most awesome times. It gave the instructor more time to set a curriculum for them to teach us more fundamentals of our instrument of music. So there was just more congruity all the way throughout the program at Clarence.”

His band director, Louis Vitello, who still is the Wind Ensemble conductor at Clarence High School, said Rivera was fantastic when he arrived from Hutch-Tech.

“Usually, we get people that move in to Clarence and the have a pretty big learning curve to catch up to where the rest of our students are. Especially by the time they get to high school,” Vitello. “And Nelson came in as a very strong sax player and he fit in really well quite quickly.”

Vitello said it makes no sense not to have band in the schedule from an educational perspective.

“Is it a class or is it an activity? In the Clarence district, starting in sixth grade they have band every day in the schedule as well as orchestra and chorus. We treat our music courses as classes, not something that’s extra,” he said. “They’re not considered one of the four academic cores, but with the new state STEAM model, which is adding arts to the engineering, the mathematics, and the language skills, it totally makes sense.”

If a threat were ever to present itself, Vitello said parents in the district would step up.

“I don’t want to say they’re the influential makers in a building, but if there are a group of parents that make good arguments for things, that’s when administrators will listen.  If it’s a good solid argument. And I’ve never known an administrator to not listen to somebody and dismiss something that makes sense.”

But Vitello acknowledges there is a suburban perk.

“The goal for most suburban districts is to get in to the best college in the best program. Unfortunately, in a lot of the inner city school districts, whether it be Buffalo, Rochester or even downstate, the goal is to graduate. So that’s a big difference,” Vitello said. “And I know there’s a lot of pressure on people to get through and get their diploma and that’s where it sort of falls in line that music is just this extra that just gets in the way when they have to graduate. But the education part of me says music will help them with their other courses so they’ll be more successful and get that diploma.”

Rivera credits music helping him develop in to a STEM professional. He went from Clarence to UB as a bio major.

“I found that music and science were one and the same,” Rivera said. “You’re solving equations and doing formulas in science? You’re having to go through chord changes and rhythm changes and all that in music. They’re one and the same. They’re utilizing so much creativity. Improvisation was one of the biggest things that helped me navigate it, as well.”

“You go in to things like pedagogy—there’s a lot of things with scaffolding and how you teach students. You teach them similarly and they learn similarly with music as well and that helps them across the board,” he said.

Rivera said he didn’t think it was a coincidence some of the smartest kids in school played with him in band.

“All of my friends that I could remember were in AP courses. They did everything under the sun. They were involved in community service, they went above and beyond everything they had to do,” he said.

About a decade-and-a-half has passed and that is still the trend at Clarence, according to Vitello.

“If I look at the kids in the wind ensemble this year, the valedictorian, the salutatorian are in my trumpet section,” Vitello said. “Next year, if it stays the way it currently is, I still have the top kids in the class. Almost every single year, the top kids in the class are in the chorus, the band, or the orchestra.”

Louis Vitello- Clarence Wind Ensemble Conductor
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

Whether it’s an abundance of studies that point to the benefits of what a healthy music program can do for students or the individual stories themselves, if the end goal is to create equal opportunity for all students in the Buffalo region, students in impoverished areas who attend schools not in good standing should have access to music too. If not, Steiner said that would be discriminative.

“They’re spending their money on reading coaches and math coaches to get their scores up. They can’t even think about [it]. They have to think about hiring more interpreters and counselors because these kids are coming from refugee camps,” said Steiner.

“Now, I just don’t understand how a kid could leave one school and go to another and they’re like, ‘I can’t take an instrument here.’ Through all my years in the school district, I’ve heard it all. ‘I used to take it in fifth grade but then I went to another school in sixth grade and we didn’t have band there.’ That’s not fair. And these schools are not going to buy band and chorus. They’re not. Why aren’t they just given them? All the same. And they all need a full time person.”

The BPS has said in the past the 30 grade 5-8 schools all have resources present to have instrumental music. Steiner said that is just smoke and mirrors and not a sustainable model for properly funding programs.

“So what they did was they gave a point-one-seven arts money. Point-one-seven is one day a cycle,” she said. “So they’re given to the SBMT teams and they are saying, ‘Look it, we’re giving you instrumental music. It’s one day a cycle, but it’s not just instrumental. So you can chose to use that any way you want for the arts.’ And they’re saying, ‘See we provide instrumental music in every single school and we’re offering instrumental at every school in the school district.’ See the smoke and mirrors?”

Steiner did highlight an environment where one day in a cycle could work.

“At a school like Olmsted, we have a different cliental of students,” she said. “Privileged. The suburban perk is at School 64, ‘Baby Olmsted’ I call it. I did one [band] day a cycle at Olmsted. I had like 75 kids in that one day. They would all show up. I had them renting their own instruments. Not the crappy district instruments. They would show up every week, whatever day it was, all have their instruments. They have parents at home that are like, ‘Practice. Practice.’ I also told Olmsted I needed band on A-days, the last period of the day every time I was there. And they were like, ‘ok.’ And they gave it to me. There’s a difference,” she said.

“Now you go to a school like, let’s talk about the low poverty schools. We want to say that school choice, we all know it’s not true. We go to School 17 the one day a cycle they have there. Well those kids are probably afraid to bring their instruments home. To walk with them. They’re afraid of getting jumped. My kids here at Hutch Tech are afraid to bring their instruments home some of them. They say, ‘Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t even have this instrument if I tried to carry it in my neighborhood.’”

Another problem for certain city schools regarding one day a cycle schedules: kids often have trouble remembering what day to bring in their instrument.

“A lot of their parents don’t even have working cell phones,” Steiner said. “They have a different number every other day on these throughout Cricket phones to even use apps like remind that say, ‘Got to remember to bring your instrument.’ The Olmsted kids are remembering. It’s not because those kids are better kids. These kids all are better. These kids are all awesome. These kids all have the potential. To be amazing. If we give them what amazing can be. So we’re giving some of the schools amazing and we’re giving some of the schools nothing. We’re setting them up for failure.”

Steiner said the diverse students she taught at International Preparatory School, which included refugees and many English Language Learner’s, posed many barriers that music helped break through.

“Music? Universal language,” Steiner said. “These kids can’t communicate to people because there’s all these languages,” she said. “I taught at IPrep for several years. I had kids with I think 27 different dialects in my band. You can communicate through music. They have a place where they belong. And instead of, I’m surrounded by all these kids from different countries and I don’t even know where to begin, well guess what? That band room gives them a home. Instantly. The bonds that they create in the band room for these kids?  Find room. Because mentally and therapeutically it’s going to help these kids in the long run.”

“I was able to get instruments in these kids’ hands and then watch them grow up. These were the kids, I’m talking kids who would throw chairs, get right up in my face and tell me not to use their name. ‘Do not use my name. Get my name out of your mouth right now. Who do you think you are?’ Disciplined behavior. Horrible. I watched these kids find a group of unlikely friends I call them. Like little Peepo. Who doesn’t speak a word of English? Is quiet and dainty and (gestures with hand) this tiny. And then Tatiana who is like, hardcore!,” Steiner screamed while clapping for every single word. “She. Is. Hard. Core. All the time. Intense.”

“Then you watch them after a few weeks and the unlikely friends become friends. And that’s what happens. And then what ends up happening is, Tatiana says to Peepo, ‘Maybe you should join the basketball team with me.’ And then Peepo joins the basketball team, but then Peepo’s on the chess team and she’s like, ‘Tatiana you’re pretty smart,’ in whatever way she can communicate it, ‘Come with me.’ And then all of a sudden I watch these kids start behaving in school and joining clubs and joinging sports. Getting on the merit roll. Getting on the honor roll. Becoming class president. This is what happens to these kids. Because they have something.”

And at a very diverse Hutch-Tech, she sees the same thing.

“Sometimes when I watch some of these kids that are getting along together, I can’t even believe that they’ve become friends,” she said. “They’ll tell administration they only come to school for music.”

State regulations say students must be given the opportunity to complete music sequences when the first enter grade 9. Studies show the benefits to the programs. Music educators will continue to plead their case.

But will and when something be done about it? Teachers like Amy Steiner don’t appear to be dropping the issue anytime soon.