Music education

Memphis charter operator continues strong band tradition at Fairley High School

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Drumline practice for the Fairley High School marching band in Memphis

Fresh from an outdoor practice on a grassy common area at Fairley High School in Memphis, Dedrick Jones puts aside his baritone for a moment to reflect on what being in the marching band means to him.

“It teaches me how to stay committed toward a common goal with an entire group,” said Dedrick, a 16-year-old junior.

Dedrick is fortunate.

Band could have been eliminated from Fairley’s extracurricular activities in 2014 when the school was converted to a charter school under the control of Green Dot Public Schools. Most charter schools don’t offer marching band due to the financial cost. And the top priority for Green Dot, a Los Angeles-based charter network authorized by Tennessee’s Achievement School District, was to focus its resources on turning around the low-performing school academically.

But at Fairley, where the band has historically been a big part of the school’s culture, Green Dot leaders opted to keep the program.

“(Students) love being a part of it,” explained principal Zach Samson. “It builds musical talent and expands horizons in terms of opportunities like careers and scholarship money.”

Of the 29 mostly charter schools that are part of the state’s Achievement School District, only one other — Wooddale Middle — has a full band.

Many principals and charter administrators balk at the price tag of a band, including instruction and providing instruments, travel and uniforms, according to Deron Hall, director of partnerships and operations for Memphis Music Initiative, a new program that supports organizations using music as a tool for youth development.

“In an environment of declining resources, you may have a principal who might prioritize certain areas over things like music,” Hall said. “For many school administrators, if their actual school performance is not related to the other areas like the arts, then there’s really no incentive to create a program.”

But at Fairley, band was already a high-quality program. “They already know how to run it. It’s successful, the kids love it, and it’s probably helping to drive the culture of the entire school,” Hall said.

Known as the Power Source, the high-energy band is open to all grades and is 70 members strong. The group performs at football games, pep rallies and competitions and has marched in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras festival.

The band’s budget comes from a combination of funding from the school and its booster club. It’s a good investment, say supporters, noting that multiple studies link music study to high academic achievement.

Over the last four years, more than 80 percent of Fairley’s honor society was comprised of band members. Ten to 15 students per year go on to play in a college band and generally receive band-related scholarships, according to director Michael Cowans and associate director James Thomas.

“In some ways, the band is directly responsible for the fact that the kids are on honor roll,” Samson said. “Mike and James do a good job of teaching the kids discipline and teaching them to aim really high.”

Discipline is a pillar of the program, according to Thomas. “We teach more than music down here,” he said.

For instance, when a member addresses the band, other members are expected to be silent and give their attention. To be eligible to play, students must keep their grades up and meet individually with their teachers each week.

Trumpet players practice together at Fairley High School.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Trumpet players, including Jose Perez (right), during an afternoon practice session

“They have to be disciplined individuals to leave here, go off to college to a four-year university and be able to get to get to class on time,” Thomas said. “We just instill zero tolerance when it comes to (not completing) the education side of it.”

The program also provides stability for students who come from primarily low-income families whose lives are filled with out-of-school challenges.

“In the area we stay in, music is to a lot of these kids, an escape from the issues they’re dealing with in the community or their households,” Thomas said. “It gives them a time to take their mind off that and really focus on something they love to do.”

Band members say being part of Power Source is one of the best things about school — for a lot of different reasons.

“Band has taught me life skills, like how to carry yourself outside of the band room, or inside,” said Mia Mathis, 17, a senior who plays the trumpet and hopes to play in college.

“Everybody in the band is your family,” Jose Perez, 17, another trumpet player. “You might not know them at first but by the time school starts and you start getting to know each other it’s like you form a bond.”

Below, you can watch a 2015 floor show performance of the Fairley High School Marching Band.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede