This past weekend, the Rochester City School District marching band embarked on its first-ever out-of-state trip to Hersheypark in Pennsylvania.
This trip was a watershed moment, according to Alison Schmitt, lead teacher for the Arts Department in the Rochester City School District.
“Back in the ’40s and ’50s, there were marching bands in every single city high school, and you can see some reminders of that when you go and visit those locations,” Schmitt said. “But for a variety of reasons, the programs died out over the years.”
About five years ago, Schmitt said, as part of a major expansion and reinvestment in the arts, the district chose to start the Pride of Rochester marching band. It began with students from fifth to 12th grades and a handful of students, including some with special needs.
Schmitt said it has bloomed into a full-fledged marching band with uniforms and a brand-new, custom-made equipment truck.
“There is not really a program like this in western New York,” she said. “If you’re talking about urban districts. We go year-round. It’s phenomenal as an access point for all the students that feel like they don’t fit in anywhere else.”
Schmitt said there’s a bigger picture here -- that the arts can help students thrive academically and socially. She likes to tell Jonah Barley’s story. He was a student of hers before the band got off the ground.
“Jonah Barley was a student of mine at School No. 16 many years ago, and he came into the program really struggling behaviorally,” Schmitt said. “He was in in-school suspension every other week.”
But, she said, he loved singing, dancing and being in chorus.
“So we had a conversation, Jonah and I, the June of his fifth-grade year,” Schmitt recalled. “And I said, ‘Jonah, you want to be in chorus, so here’s the deal. I need you to be on time every day. I need you to do what you need to do in your classes. And I need you to avoid in-school suspension. Really use your strategies to keep yourself in line. If you can do that, you will be my new dance captain.’ ”
Schmitt said that between September and January of the following year, Jonah went from several in-school suspensions a week to none.
“He changed his life through the power of music. He was phenomenal,” she said.
She said she took him with her performing arts program to 17 shows throughout the community.
“And Jonah was the star,” Schmitt said. “And you could see from his entire demeanor … he engaged in his classroom in a totally different way because he had something that kept him coming to school every day. I’ve used Jonah’s story with many little boys across the City School District for years since then of what you can do if you put your passion first.
“Unfortunately, Jonah is no longer with us. He was one of the boys that was murdered at the Boys and Girls Club,” she said. “But his impact is still being felt throughout our community every time I tell the story.”