The Funding: Gone. The Room: Barren. The Teacher: A Substitute, Who Helped Students Revive A School's Music Program
When Jasmyne Pope began substitute teaching music at Dorsey High in fall 2021, she was only planning on staying for a couple of weeks. Then she walked into the school’s music room: it was practically empty, minus an old set of drums and a broken piano. There were no working instruments. It had been over a decade since the school had a functioning music program.
Pope considers herself an advocate for the arts and music. “It's something that people don't see a lot of value in. People go, oh, ‘well, if it's not academics’ … well to me music is academics,” she said.
She realized then, in the fall of 2021, that there was something missing, something she had the opportunity to experience as an adolescent. “Seeing people that look like me who don’t have access to instrumental music or music programs was just sad,” Pope said. Music was a part of Pope’s childhood; she trained as a classical pianist for 12 years.
Susan Miller Dorsey High School is located in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw neighborhood. Most students are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch, the most common proxy for economic disadvantage.
Dorsey alum-turned-principal Orlando Johnson said expanding the experiences of students is important because it allows them to follow a path they connect with. He also said representation is important.
“You know, we’re primarily Black and Brown, and if you want representation in various arts, and we’re talking specifically about music, then you have to have musicians that resemble and represent our students. I think that’s the only way that you can get their true voice,” Johnson said.
A 2019 Brookings study found academic, social, and emotional benefits among students in arts education classes. Another study found that low-income students who attend “arts-rich” K-12 schools were significantly more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than students who attended “arts-poor” schools.
A student request
Emmani Arterberry Bey, 18, is a senior at Dorsey High School. While a friend of hers was going through "a hard time," the two of them went to Pope looking for help.
“We asked her if we could set up like a studio in the back room so that we could start making music,” Bey said. They also offered to help clean.
“We’re seniors now and we’re going to be leaving, so we still wanted to have a music industry here,” she said. She became interested in the drums after watching the movie Drumline in her 6th grade class.
Pope recognized the interest and desire among students to learn and play musical instruments and felt called upon to take on that role. It was only a matter of time before that empty room began to liven up again, as furniture was moved in from across campus.
It’s not just a life skill — students say it’s been a boon to their mental health.
Like for Dorsey High sophomore Denzel, 16, who said music is everything. “I can’t live without music, literally. That’s how I grew up. Music has always been my outlet, it’s always been fun for me,” the drummer said.
California restricts how much time a substitute teacher can teach in any one subject or classroom. Last spring, Pope reached her limit, which meant the music program’s revival hit a caesura. Undeterred, Pope went after her full-time music teacher credential.
It was not an easy process.
“There was a lot of stipulations on like the type of instruments that you could use, which for me, especially as a person of color, I was just like, you know, a lot of Black people don't have access to like this type of piano or this type of setting to play in. So it became sort of like what is this really about?” Pope said about the state’s teacher exam.
“There's a lot of eligible people who would love to be teaching that are barred access because of the bureaucracy within the school district and at the state level,” Pope said.
Moving across campus led to Pope meeting the school’s football coach, Irvin Davis.
In addition to teaching social studies at the school, Davis coaches softball and track, is a bass player, music studio owner, producer and engineer. In his 32 years of working at Dorsey High, Davis has served as a mentor teacher, athletic director, and assistant dean. He began to mentor Pope about the process of becoming a permanent and credentialed teacher within LAUSD, which he said is a strict process.
“That is why we have had such a revolving door of teachers for the last 10-15 years, and we have not been able to put together a stable and consistent program,” he said.
As a teacher, parent, and alum of Dorsey High, Davis wants music to be a viable career path for the school’s students. “Our students are very talented with regards to the arts, but art and music programs have been dying in LAUSD,” Davis said.
Coming up with a plan
After the previous music instructor retired, substitute teachers would come fill in to teach music classes. Davis said no one stayed in the position long enough to develop a program. “I told Ms. Pope that if she wanted to be a career teacher, that this was a great opportunity for her,” Davis said.
Together, Pope and Davis spent the summer of 2022 coming up with a plan for reviving the music program at Dorsey High. Their vision included a recording arts workshop, a performance band, music appreciation courses and class curriculums. Thus, the Recording Arts Program at Dorsey High was born.
“It’s to offer students who want to be more serious with music and who think that they either want to pursue it professionally or at least continue their education in music beyond high school,” Pope said. “So, to give them the opportunity to perform music. Prior to this there was a music class but there was very little to no music performance.”
Dorsey High School has a history of graduating students going on to build careers in music and the arts. Some notable musical alumni include Arthur Lee and Johnny Echols of the 1960s psychedelic rock band Love; Mike Love of The Beach Boys; Billy Preston; Jody Watley; and DJ Mustard.
“The arts are a very important outlet for students to express their creativity. Our community breeds creative talent and we are doing the students a big disservice if we are not providing these creative outlets for them,” Davis said.
Finding the money
The re-emergence of Dorsey’s music program in the fall of 2022 also faced financial obstacles, like the funding for instruments and other supplies.
In the beginning, Pope would bring in her own instruments, with some others borrowed from coach Davis and some paid for out of Pope’s pocket. She sought out donations and grants, including one from LAUSD’s Black Student Achievement Plan. Dorsey’s music program has also received donations from LAUSD. Currently, 1 in 5 public schools in the state of California have a full-time arts and music program. In New York, it’s 4 out of 5.
LAUSD’s arts education budget has bounced around over the years. At its highest point, in 2007, the district allocated almost $79 million to the arts. That money evaporated during the Great Recession, plunging to just under $20 million within a few years, and staying low for the next decade. Thanks to an additional investment last year, the district now spends close to $51 million.
Voters passed Proposition 28 last November, which guarantees 1% of state funding will be dedicated to arts education in California’s K-12 schools every year. This coming year, that amounts to about $1 billion. The rollout is likely to begin in the 2023-2024 school year.
According to former LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner, who also led the Prop 28 campaign, most of the money would be set aside for hiring 15,000 new instructors.
During the Prop 28 campaign, Beutner told LAist 89.3’s current affairs show AirTalk that arts education “will better prepare students for the jobs of today and tomorrow in the creative economy, which is the number one employer in the state of California.”
Pope is hoping the music program expands. “I would love to see more students get involved,” she said.
In the meantime, Pope continues to work toward becoming a permanent full-time music teacher at Dorsey High.
“My goal is to get them playing as much as possible, learning as many different songs and genres as possible to discover like, what it is that interests them," she said, "and then learn to construct their own pieces.”
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