By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Staff Writer
For years, the band room at Belmont High School has had a bit of a clutter problem. The desk of program director Brian Higa is littered with trophies, plaques and awards, as is practically every available shelf and flat surface in the room.
“This is the product of kids who believe not only that they can achieve, but that they can excel,” said Higa, 52, of the accolades from decades of success by his music students.
After leading his band during graduation ceremonies last Monday, Higa had to begin his search for a new home for the awards – and for himself. In late May, the man who has headed Belmont’s music program for 24 years learned that his and practically all other performing arts programs will be eliminated.
The stated cause? What else? Budget cuts.
Higa, along with some 200 other arts instructors in the Los Angeles Unified School District, may return in the fall, but to teach something other than the arts.
“I was initially told the music program at Belmont would be eliminated,” Higa told The Rafu on June 7. “That’s what they told me two weeks ago. Since then, they’ve said that it won’t be wiped out, just moved to after school. I’m not going to be here, so I don’t know who’s going to run it.”
According to a statement issued by the LAUSD, “core content” classes such as English, math and social studies take priority over all else in these times of ever-shrinking state funding for public schools.
The document also praised Higa for his program and suggested that music will perhaps continue as a before or after school activity, but that would likely require an unpaid commitment on the part of someone.
Higa said 17 teachers at Belmont, including himself and another arts instructor, would be put into a pool and interviewed for other positions. He has a teaching credential in social studies, so he’s assured of a job, he just doesn’t know where. He said the reason for the problems are as easy to see as the walls around you.
“It’s basically enrollment,” Higa said. “The enrollment numbers here are down because they have so many other places in this area. They’ve opened four new high schools in the last five years or so. Belmont used to have 5,000 students. Now we’re down to around 1,100, so we can’t support a lot of programs that have been here for a long time.”
In a downtown area that used to be served by one high school, there are now five, with the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts, the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex and the Edward Roybal Learning Center all within walking distance of Belmont. The kindergarten-through-12th-grade Robert F. Kennedy Community School is just a short bus ride down Wilshire Boulevard.
Opened nearly two years ago, RFK is the most expensive public school in the nation, costing a reported $578 million. Roybal opened in 2008 at a cost of $377 million, after a decade of construction and delays. Cortines ($232 million) opened the following year, and the $161 million Contreras campus began instruction in 2006.
Higa said that there is almost always a shortage of funds in school districts, but teaching doesn’t have to rely on huge budgets.
“Money doesn’t solve problems. You could teach in a mud hut if you have a good teacher, stable classroom environment, small class sizes,” he said. “Those things really work. Spending hundreds of millions of dollars building new schools doesn’t solve the problem because you don’t have the people in the schools to teach. You have a $400 million high school that can’t get accredited, and you have Belmont, that has been around forever with a great staff with the maximum accreditation. Where’s the better money spent?
“Just building schools is not the answer. You have to build infrastructure, you have to build relationships. You have to treat kids not as test scores but as people.”
He added that the move toward trying to establish what have become known as “small learning communities” has clouded the view of many administrators as to how instruction should flow.
“Here is a situation where you have an established program, then they tear it apart because the latest fad is SLCs. They give kids no choices on their electives, and they lock them into a situation that’s so structured that they have no flexibility.
“I believe in small communities as a concept, but concepts and reality don’t always match up. Communism looked good on paper, but it doesn’t work in reality.”
Higa contends that researchers who cite the statistics about SLCs have lots of numbers to support their position, but few have set foot in a classroom recently. He claims that kids will flock to things like band, but administrators see that as a threat to the structure they are building.
“Restricting choices this early in life is not going to produce a successful student,” he warned.
A bigger problem, according to Higa and a growing number of educators statewide, is the ever-increasing importance placed on testing scores in core subjects. He said there is ample, undeniable research that shows kids who are involved with music tend to show more proficiency in math and other subjects.
Creativity and Success
“You see people who are leaders in their fields who often have some kind of arts in their background. Kids who are only being prepared for tests have a creative element that’s not being developed. You can learn reading, writing, math and science, but it’s that creative element that really separates the top leaders in their fields. People like Steve Jobs, these people are musical and creative and successful.”
Higa believes that the current culture of education in California fosters an environment in which administrators are being pressured by their superiors to show tangible results on paper of student learning. No one wants to speak out against the system and lose a job.
“The decisions about these things come from the top, and a lot of these guys have never taught in the classroom,” Higa attests. “They have ‘PhD.’ at the end of their names and they can quote data like it’s going out of style, but if you work in the classroom every day and you see the kind of impact these decisions have on the everyday person, any teacher with any kind of experience or any success in the classroom will tell you that these things just don’t work. Not every kid’s going to college. That’s not realistic. You can prepare every student for college, but what happens if they don’t go to college? You have to give them options, you have to teach them trades, you have to teach them things with which they can make a living. So many spend $200,000 on college then graduate and can’t find a job.”
Value of Apprenticeships
Higa believes that there is value in the time-honored tradition of apprenticeships for students who may not see college as a viable option.
“That’s the old way that worked for years and years, to work under someone and help a business, then after a year or two, that student may be able to go out and get a job and contribute to society. We used to have vocational training in the schools, wood shop, metal shop, auto shop, cooking. Now, people look at that as if it’s some kind of insult, the idea that we have to help them learn how to make a living.”
The success of Higa’s students isn’t seen solely in awards, of course. There are countless success stories, of those who went on to professional careers in music as well as students who wandered into his room having never before touched an instrument and eventually walked out with a clearer direction in life.
“The music program really helped makes us who we are today,” said Angelica Ramirez a former student of Higa’s band who just graduated from Wellesley College. The 21-year-old credits music as a major factor in her receiving a Bill Gates Scholarship, which she will use toward earning a master’s degree in public health from Boston University starting this fall.
“It helped me get into college, led to leadership positions and helped me develop an outward personality,” she said. “Hearing it’s closing is very unfortunate because I don’t know how my high school career would have ended without the opportunities that music brought.”
Another former student, Carlos Hernandez, also 21, spent his four years at Belmont immersing himself in drumming and rhythm studies. He said music was the perfect calling for him, far more so than academics. He did not graduate and today makes his living as a professional drummer.
“This program always helped me feel like maybe I was better person than I might have thought otherwise,” Hernandez insisted. “As a student who did not know where to go, I found my passion in music and thanks to this program, I’ve been able to pursue my dreams and be someone who is productive.”
At this year’s graduation, more than 100 alumni attended, not only to show support for Belmont’s music program, but also to join the band in playing “Pomp and Circumstance” one last time. Higa reported it was a very emotional scene, and that the band had special T-shirts printed to honor the final performance.
Almost immediately, news of the LAUSD’s decision began to spread, with current and former students, as well as several news outlets, taking notice. A group of former Belmont band members established a Facebook page dedicated to their shared experience, where messages of remembrance and support included:
“I have been reading all the posts in the past week, and it has taken a few days for this to sink in. I feel compelled to share my thoughts on what I consider a true tragedy.”
“Like the band on the Titanic, we went down with pride and dignity. We entered to learn and returned to serve.”
“We can all hold our heads high, as we represented the tradition from 1923. We are all Belmont Sentinels.”
“So proud of you, Brian Higa. I back you up 200 percent. You and I go way back and we’ve lived through it all at Belmont. I salute you today and always…You are a fabulous teacher who has made such a difference in our kids’ lives and you are my dear friend!”
Several Belmont parents and alumni have held meetings to discuss options for fund raising and support for an after school music program, but nothing has yet been officially established.
Ultimately, the issues facing the nation’s second-largest school district are complex and perplexing, and no single idea or strategy will change that. Higa claims he is not bitter about the fate of his music program, but has little love for ideas such as wholesale faculty restructuring at schools or yearly textbook updates that provide kickbacks to administrators who push for them.
Raised in Echo Park and a graduate of Belmont himself, Higa ran the band program on a budget of $500 last year, repairing the aging instruments himself and using much of his own money for necessities. A $24,000 grant received by the program several years ago was used to purchase supplies and instruments with an eye toward the future.
Higa said the school’s music program – which began in the 1920s – has been successful for so long for many reasons.
“Tradition should count for something. Today, tradition is thrown by the wayside in favor of the latest fad or by how many new textbooks we can buy.”
He believes that shaking up the staff at schools with poor test scores is not so much to improve the facility as it is a maneuver to impress critics on the outside that something is being done.
“The last thing a kid who has no stability at home needs is some major disruption in the classroom,” he said.
Higa also pointed to shifting demographics and the impact of more stringent enforcement of immigration laws as factors in the decline of enrollment at L.A.’s urban schools.
“There’s a lot of hostility toward educating someone who they don’t want to spend money on, but the flip side of that is businesses want people to work for minimum wage, in jobs nobody else wants,” he commented. “There’s two sides in every story, always.”