Ten years ago, Chiawana High School in Pasco, Washington, did not exist. Nine years ago, the high school opened its doors and started a small band program of about 30 students. Today, the school has a 120-member competitive marching band, three separate concert band ensembles, a percussion ensemble, five choral groups, two orchestras, and other music programs like classical guitar.
Despite what Chiawana’s musical success may imply, the school is not wealthy. In fact, more than half of the students receive free or reduced lunch, and many students are homeless. “We have a school and a district that believe music is great for kids—especially kids in poverty—because it gets them to school, and attendance is success,” says Kevin Clayton, band director at Chiawana.
As a result of the band’s success in the face of challenges, Chiawana is the recipient of the first national Dr. William P. Foster Project Award of Excellence. This spring, the music program will receive free new music accessories like reeds and mouthpieces and have guest clinicians teach master classes.
The Award of Excellence is just one piece of the Dr. William P. Foster Project, the first initiative created by the Music Education Alliance (MEA). The Foster Project aims to provide musical resources and opportunities in underserved communities.
Forming an Alliance
About three years ago, Music for All (MFA), the National Band Association (NBA), and the College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA) all collaborated to create the MEA.
Scott Casagrande, president of NBA and educational team member for MFA, conceived of this collaboration when he saw a need for both of his organizations to work together. When the MEA formed, its members gathered to brainstorm strengths and weaknesses.
“The number one self-proclaimed weakness of all three was serving diverse populations,” Casagrande says. “We decided that would be our first endeavor together.”
The result was the Foster Project, a three-tiered approach to helping financially underprivileged schools.
The first piece of the project is the Award of Excellence, which recognizes underserved schools who are succeeding in music. The second piece is a mentorship program, run by the CBDNA. Schools can join a database where they are matched up with mentors or other music educators who share resources and advice with them. The third piece of the project is the Best Practices Initiative, which is a series of articles hosted on the MEA website, with information to help underserved schools.
The Foster Project has a large advisory board, a group of division chairs, and administrators, totaling 16 members. “Every single one of them is connected to underserved schools in a strong way,” Casagrande says. “They either grew up in an underserved school, or they’re an administrator in an underserved school. … That advisory board is kind of a hall of fame of underserved school educators.”
As a result, the Foster Project has been completely fueled by passion—especially considering all of the people involved are volunteers. “No one’s getting paid for any of this,” Casagrande says. “All the chairs, any committees we put together, it’s all volunteer work. Including me.”
Right now, the Award of Excellence is at the forefront of the project. In order to be eligible for this award, schools must have at least 50 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch. “The intent of the Foster Project is to bring light to people who are doing more with less,” Casagrande says.
The award will be given out on an annual basis, alternating between high schools and middle schools. The Foster Project selected five division winners representing five geographic regions within the United States with the national winner announced during a reception at The Midwest Clinic International Band and Orchestra Conference in December.
During the reception, “[I heard] people say that this is so necessary and so needed,” says James P. Stephens Jr., director of advocacy and educational resources for MFA. “Those programs that are lacking resources for whatever reason are often neglected. To hear people say, ‘This is so needed! Thank you!’ is what keeps us going.”
At the Midwest Clinic, Foster’s son, Anthony, presented Chiawana with the national award. “It was overwhelming and humbling,” Clayton says. “When I moved to Pasco, one of my personal goals was to prove that all kids can achieve, regardless of their financial backgrounds or family situations. Getting this award was a culmination in recognition for what we’re achieving in our program.”
Currently, Clayton is in the process of determining which clinicians will visit Chiawana this spring. Chiawana is buzzing with excitement from the award. “[There’s] an incredible positive vibe that goes all the way up to our superintendent,” Clayton says. “The kids feel important right now.”
Honoring a Legend
For MEA, naming this new initiative after William P. Foster—longtime former director of the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) Marching 100—was a way to honor someone who embodied the project’s overall goals and mission. Members suggested many different potential names but agreed on Foster because of his legacy.
“He’s had to overcome significant obstacles achieving excellence in underserved populations and schools,” Casagrande says. “He was known as one of the greatest musicians at his time. Regardless of race or background, he was equally respected by all music educators. He personified the attitude of being successful regardless of the obstacles in front of you.”
While not a part of the Dr. William P. and Mary Ann Foster Foundation, which provides financial support to students in the FAMU band and furthers Foster’s commitment to music education through historical exhibits and events, MEA’s Foster Project shares the common goal of honoring Foster’s legacy and supporting student musicians.
Even though the Foster Project is still in its beginning stages, its mission to keep music programs alive and well in all schools, regardless of financial situation, is clear. “Music advocacy [is not] something you do when you think music is going to get cut; music advocacy is a wellness program,” Stephens says. “It’s something you need to be doing every day. When your students are acknowledged for any degree of success, it helps strengthen and protect the longevity of the program.”