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.
Mike Herrera, a Watson recommendation who has taught sax, flute and clarinet at the school for nearly three years, says, "One thing I learned from Bobby is that a great teacher can teach one thing 20 different ways. It's about finding what works best for each individual student."
Mirna Kawar, who teaches piano and is wrapping up a master's degree in music therapy, agrees. "It can be challenging to sustain the kids' attention. Many of them have ADHD or similar issues. So I try to learn what they're interested in and give them little rewards. If they like hip-hop, I'll add a hip-hop rhythm to the keyboard to get them more motivated."
Demand for the program exceeds resources. There is a waiting list, which puts the instructors in the desirable — and, in Kansas City's urban core, extraordinarily rare — position of teaching eager students. "The pressure is kind of on the kids if they want to stay in the program, because we can only afford to tutor the ones who do well academically and who really practice at their instruments," Richter said. "If they're not performing, we can find someone else to fill their slot."
Richter's first student of the day was soon to be dropped off at St. Louis Church, so we walked across Swope Parkway to meet him. "Some of the kids are old enough to come over by themselves, but some we have to kind of escort," he said. "We teach anywhere between the ages of about 7 and 17. You know, in Missouri public schools, the kids don't get to take horn classes until middle school. And when they're that old, they're not as willing to sound bad. So it's better in third or fourth grade, when they're still amused by the sound of the instrument, and they don't get embarrassed when they can't make it sound right. They're more willing to learn it."
We corralled a skinny, smiling, hyperactive 8-year-old boy and started back. "Don't tell me you haven't been practicing," Richter said to him, in a fake stern tone. We spotted McEvoy, the executive director, crossing the boulevard, and he walked with us to the waiting area.
"These churches really just open up their doors to us," McEvoy told me, noting that the Upper Room typically pays utility costs to the churches in exchange for the space to hold the programs. "They're happy to have us. We hire from the community. We have a new GED program for single moms. It works out well all around. With music — learning music goes beyond learning instruments. It's applying your mind to something to accomplish something, to improve."
The Eddie Baker School of Music — named after the Kansas City jazz musician who died in 2005 after founding the Charlie Parker Foundation, an organization that was similarly dedicated to providing free music education to children who couldn't afford it — pays its teachers and keeps the lights on through grants, private and corporate donations, and government funding. On Friday, the Upper Room is hosting a benefit for the school, across town in Leawood at the Church of the Resurrection, to draw attention to the organization and raise money. Lonnie McFadden, Marilyn Maye, and the Palestine Gospel Singers will perform, as will Watson, who will take the stage with Richter's Saturday-morning ensemble class. They'll perform a song that Richter wrote: "The West Indian Marching Song." "They're really thrilled that they get to play with Bobby," Richter said.
By 4 p.m., the school was gradually sparking to life. Teachers carrying instrument cases made their way into studios. A young boy wearing navy slacks, a white short-sleeve shirt, a yellow tie and bright-white Nikes sat coloring, waiting for his lesson. Down the hall, an unsteady clarinet navigated scales. A gentle cacophony was swelling. Richter's studio door was half-open. "Here, how about let's play this thing this way, and then once we learn that, I can show you how to play that other stuff you were talking about," he said. "You ready? OK. One, two ..."