The Kansas City, Missouri, School District crept back into the headlines this autumn, following the abrupt resignation of its superintendent, John Covington, and the state of Missouri's announcement that it intends to strip the district of its accreditation, effective January 1. But the sorry state of the city's public schools is hardly news. The district has been the great shame of our city for decades. It's why, in 1999, Jerry McEvoy raised $1 million, renovated a fire-damaged space above St. Louis Church at 60th Street and Swope Parkway, and founded the Upper Room.
McEvoy had conducted meetings in the community with heads of households — almost all single mothers — seeking to determine how a nonprofit could best serve the area. Literacy was the most common response; their children simply weren't learning how to read at school.
So the Upper Room took the form of a free summer academic camp, with an emphasis on reading skills. It served 90 students at the St. Louis Church location its first year. This past summer, 2,500 students participated at various church sites along the Swope corridor. Over time, it has added after-school classes during the school year and gradually incorporated arts education. It would not be difficult to make the argument that the Upper Room is educating its inner-city students more efficiently, and more comprehensively, than the school district.
Its music program, the Eddie Baker School of Music, operates on the second floor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, directly across the street from St. Louis Church. A couple of Mondays ago, the school's supervisor, a musician named Greg Richter, showed me around. He pointed out rooms where he and the staff give private lessons, and he opened up supply closets filled to the top with used guitars, saxophones and drum accessories, which the school purchases to lend to its students. "Right now, we've only got about 90 instruments on hand," he told me. "About 210 of the 300 students who did the music camp this summer stuck with the program, and we teach as many of them through the school year as we can."
We settled in the waiting area, a room with rectangular tables, a bookshelf, and posters of Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck on the walls. It was empty and quiet. The schools were just letting out, and the kids wouldn't start arriving for their lessons for another hour or so. Richter, who was wearing black, rubbery gloves with open fingertips, sat at the desk at the head of the room. He removed and folded his wire-frame glasses and held them in the air near his shoulder as he spoke.
"I played piano for 15 years with Jimmy Hamilton, who was Duke Ellington's featured clarinet player for 26 years," Richter said. "He was a mentor of mine, and he was also a teacher. He's the one who put that bug in me: If you're not playing, then you ought to be teaching."
Richter has a gig at Sullivan's on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, but otherwise he is fully devoted to the school. In addition to scheduling and supervising operations, he conducts around 40 private, 30-minute lessons a week and, on Saturday mornings, trains a student ensemble. When I could restrain my curiosity no longer and finally asked him about the gloves he was wearing, he said they provide relief for his hands, which tend to ache after playing, on average, about six hours of music a day.
The instructors Richter hires tend to be musicians he knows from playing around town or musicians recommended by the saxophonist Bobby Watson, assistant director of jazz studies at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. "You have to possess a certain temperament for teaching, and Bobby really understands that and can identify people who have it," he said.