Charter schools join in the beat of New Orleans marching band tradition

Until a few weeks ago, Lionel Williams Jr. was not sure whether his band of freshmen would be ready for the high-wattage exposure of a Mardi Gras parade.

Many members just started playing their instruments last fall, when KIPP Renaissance High School opened its doors with an inaugural class of ninth-graders. There were no upperclassmen to lead by example, no established traditions to draw on. The 50 or so students were a marching band cooked up from scratch.

But Williams decided they were up for the challenge. He picked up the phone and called the contacts he had made while leading the powerhouse Warren Easton High School band before Hurricane Katrina.

Alla, Morpheus, Thoth, Orpheus — all said yes.

KIPP Renaissance is one of at least six bands marching for the first time this Carnival season.

In the first years after Katrina, with the city’s population drastically reduced, nearly three-quarters of its schools converted to independently run charters and some well-known high schools closed for good, some people feared that New Orleans’ illustrious marching band tradition was in jeopardy.

Instead, it appears to be coming back strong, though in a slightly different form. There is no more Kennedy High, no more Fortier. But parade-goers may soon become familiar with new names such as Miller-McCoy, Algiers Tech and Nola College Prep.

L.B. Landry High, which reopened last fall, is also making its first Carnival appearance since Katrina.

The start-up bands join schools, both public and private, like St. Augustine, O. Perry Walker, Warren Easton and McDonogh 35, that resurrected their band programs almost immediately after the 2005 storm. Sophie B. Wright and Martin Luther King are among the charter school bands that already have been marching for a few years.

“Talking to parents and community members, we talk about how the culture of our city is coming back now,” said J’Vann Martin, principal of Pierre Capdau Charter School. “We’re starting to see the impact of arts education, especially in the realm of music. This city is so rich in music tradition.”

We have to have it. It’s a must,” Martin said of the elementary school’s marching band, which is making its Carnival debut in the Iris and Thoth parades.

‘Critical components’

KIPP Renaissance’s principal, Brian Dassler, made a marching band a priority from Day 1, carving out money from the school’s budget for instruments and uniforms. About 90 of the 141 students are participating in the band, drum majorettes and dance team, and the numbers should grow as Renaissance adds a grade each year to become a full-fledged high school.

“Extracurricular activities in my view, and in our view, are critical components because they help students develop habits of mind, habits of work, that serve them to and through college,” Dassler said. “Band is a team and family kind of experience. It serves to just grease the wheels, to bring people together — kids, parents, neighbors.”

Many charter schools, which receive public money but manage their own budgets, decided they could not afford band programs initially as they concentrated on getting their academics off the ground. Only now, in their second, third and fourth years, are they beginning to field bands, often by doggedly pursuing grants for the purchase of instruments and uniforms.

The Capdau band got its instruments through a $10,000 grant from Mr. Holland’s Opus, a foundation that donates instruments to music programs at needy schools.

The marching band at James Singleton Charter School was founded last fall by four teachers who have spent much of their spare time working with the budding musicians. With $25,000 from a national contest, as well as an instrument drive organized by a private school in Atlanta, the Singleton band is fully equipped and marching this season in five parades: Pygmalion, Alla, NOMTOC, Bacchus and Zulu.

At Algiers Technology Academy, a West Bank charter high school in its fourth year, the band saved money on uniforms by buying used ones online at $10 apiece, then hiring a seamstress to customize them. The school’s music program did not fully take off until the arrival in December of Lawrence Rawlins, who led the band at Kennedy High before Katrina. Students signed up in droves. Almost all have been playing their instruments for less than three months, yet Rawlins signed them up for Carnival parades including NOMTOC and Thoth.

“It has been great for our school. It’s a great motivator for the entire ATA family to see a band get off the ground in such a short period of time,” said Algiers Tech Principal Henderson Lewis Jr. “The conversation goes back to school culture. The vision from 2007 — today we’re actually living that vision. It’s important to the student body, and it’s so important to the New Orleans culture.”

Embraced by the community

Marching bands instantly boost school spirit, as everyone on campus overhears their practice sessions and gets caught up in the exuberance of the music, many school leaders say.

Bands sometimes do dry-runs by parading through nearby streets, where residents seem to relish rather than resent the interruption in their routines, emerging onto their front stoops to watch and listen.

Like football or basketball, being in a band teaches young people the importance of practice and working together, and it helps them stay out of trouble, educators say.

When Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys charter school, opened in 2008 in eastern New Orleans, administrators had to decide between athletics and band. They started with sports. This school year, with 75 instruments donated by the Tipitina’s Foundation, the band was formed under the guidance of Lester Wilson, formerly of Xavier Prep. It is marching in several parades, including Carrollton and Rex.

Especially in New Orleans, no high school is complete without a band, said Miller-McCoy Co-Principal Tiffany Hardrick.

“Band was the one piece missing to being a comprehensive high school,” Hardrick said. “It’s important to offer students everything they have in every other environment, in addition to a quality academic program. We’re not concerned with trouble finding them in the afternoon; they’re active and involved.”

Many parade organizers said they are willing to take a chance on untested local bands, both out of principle and because charter schools tend to charge lower fees than district-run schools.

“To get them back up to snuff, it helps them and it helps us,” said John Beninate, captain of Morpheus and Alla and a marshal for several other parades.

Last but not least

As rain threatened to pour onto the KIPP Renaissance band’s spiffy gray, white and black uniforms Friday night at the Morpheus staging area, chaperones adjusted chin straps and band members did dances to ward off the jitters.

“Uh-oh,” Williams said as a few drops fell. The band would not march if it rained, he said. They had two more parades to go before Mardi Gras, and it was not worth getting their uniforms wet or making kids sick.

Because of its eleventh-hour entry, Renaissance was the very last band in Morpheus. Finally, a marshal signaled for the group to fall in line behind a float. As acting drum major, Williams blew on his whistle. With only freshmen involved, a student leader has not yet emerged, and the band director was filling in.

The drizzle held off. On Jefferson Avenue just before Magazine Street, the band burst into “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang, which it had learned just a few days earlier. Williams let the whistle slip from his mouth, pausing to listen to what he had created. The band rounded the corner to a sea of cheering spectators.

“Looking good, KIPP! You guys look awesome!” a woman called out.

Cindy Chang can be reached at or 504.826.3386.