Behind Efforts to Increase Equity in BUSD Music Program

Why has the BUSD music program lacked racial diversity and equity, and what is being done to combat this?


In Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) elementary schools, all students are required to participate in music education from third to fifth grade. Fourth and fifth grade students can access an instrument for free, and are taught by professional music teachers. However, after elementary school, music becomes optional for all students. According to the Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) Equity Plan developed in 2015, that year 46 percent of white students in BUSD continued in BUSD music programs in sixth grade, while only 4 percent of Black students and 8 percent of Latinx students remained in the music program. In 2015, white students also made up 53 percent of students in music classes at Berkeley High School (BHS), while only being 40 percent of the student body, whereas both Black and Latinx students were underrepresented compared to the student body as a whole. The VAPA equity plan was developed to identify the main factors creating inequities in BUSD music and how to address them. Community members have also taken it upon themselves to make the program more inclusive and equitable. 

The lack of racial diversity in music is not limited to BUSD, and is also visible among adult and professional musicians. According to a study released by the League of American Orchestras in 2016 on racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in the Orchestra Field, out of all orchestra musicians in the US in 2014, 9 percent were Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, 2.5 percent were Latinx, and 1.8 percent were African American. 

Camille Collins, a saxophone player in the BHS jazz ensemble, has also observed a lack of diversity as a jazz musician and music student. “When I started playing, the rooms and spaces that I was in were pretty diverse. I’m Black, I’m mixed, I’m a girl … and there were plenty of other people that looked like me and that looked different from me. … But as I have gotten better and better and gotten into more and more prestigious programs, it has become whiter and whiter,” said Collins. 

According to Shannon Houston, orchestra director at Longfellow Middle School and strings teacher at multiple BUSD elementary schools, inequities in the BUSD music program have been exacerbated during distance learning. For one, music has not been required for third, fourth, and fifth graders as it was before the pandemic. Music lessons for those still participating in elementary school have also been reduced from twice weekly to once a week. Music classes are also particularly challenging to teach over Zoom, as only one person can play at once, with many teachers relying on recordings to keep up with their students’ progress. 

“When it comes to access, it is primarily with my students of color that have trouble accessing our class. They don’t have stable enough internet access, they’re on the most basic Chromebooks so we can’t really do anything that is not related to a Chromebook,” explained Houston. 

The conditions created by the pandemic and distance learning have also made it challenging for students to focus on music as they could during an in-person school year. “You very easily, very quickly, start to become overwhelmed. As a result of this, you start to get a lot of particularly students of color, who are already living in a difficult situation — they hit a point where music is just an afterthought,” said Houston.  

To make up for ground lost during distance learning, the music program is focusing on outreach. Janeare Whittington started in the 2020-21 school year as the VAPA Family Engagement and Equity Specialist, and liaison to students and families of color participating in or interested in VAPA in BUSD. Whittington attended BHS and participated in the music program, and has had two children do so as well. During distance learning, she has been making home visits to students in the music program to discuss the program with families and drop off supplies. “I have been talking to parents, really finding out what their concerns are, and coming at it not just with the perspective of an employee, but as the perspective of a parent that had children, African American children, within the district, and went through the hoops and loops in regards to the music department,” she said. Whittington is also working to increase the exposure of BUSD music through social media and increased promotion of the program.  

One of the issues outlined in the VAPA Equity Plan is the need for culturally relevant teaching. In music classes, this involves providing students with music by composers who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and exposing them to music outside of white, western, classical repertoire. “Something that I’m starting to do this year is find music that would be enjoyable, similar on the scale of traditional classical music that we play, that has been written by Black composers … but start to have it arranged for a young orchestra,” said Houston. 

The VAPA program is also working to increase the diversity of teachers through recruitment at music colleges and historically Black colleges and universities, and by maintaining relationships with musicians of color who have gone through the BUSD music program themselves. In addition to hiring diverse teachers, the music program has also been working to bring in guest artists of color to perform for and work with students. Both Whittington and Collins emphasized the need for students of color to have mentors and teachers that they can see themselves in, in order to envision a future for themselves in music. “I speak at colleges that have diverse populations of people graduating with credentials and I create relationships with people and do my recruiting that way so that they apply in Berkeley,” explained Pete Gidlund, VAPA supervisor at BUSD. According to the VAPA Equity Plan, the percentage of music teachers of color in BUSD has increased from 5 percent in 2015 to 21 percent in 2021.

In order to help make music more equitable for students, Collins created the Young Musicians Collective (YMC) in 2020. YMC provides students with free music lessons and mentorship from young and talented musicians. According to Collins, she prioritized diversifying the teachers in YMC’s network. Houston founded the New Apollo Youth Symphony Orchestra, which is open to students in the Bay Area. It was created with the goal of creating a space where underprivileged students and students of color could have opportunity and feel welcome learning music.

Another issue identified in the VAPA equity plan was an absence of equity groups holding BUSD music accountable. This role has since been filled by Berkeley Music for Inclusion and Equity (BMIE), which is made up of music teachers, students, and parents in BUSD. One of the group’s main efforts to achieve this goal has been creating a mentorship program for younger students who are BIPOC in BUSD to be mentored by BHS music students. “I know with my mentee, I really try to get her excited about music and try to show her all of these things that you can do,” said Dominic Hernandez, a junior in Academic Choice (AC), trumpet player in the 11-o’clock jazz band at BHS, and member of BMIE.  

To reach out to students and families of color, BMIE has organized a jazz day for kindergarten through eighth grade BUSD students who are BIPOC, to introduce them and their families to the music program. The jazz day is loosely modeled after JazzGirls Day, a program introduced to BUSD by Sarah Cline, BHS jazz director and graduate.  

The first JazzGirls Day was held in 2012, and is free and open to girls in elementary and middle school in the Bay Area, but is primarily attended by girls in BUSD. According to Cline, the representation of girls in BHS jazz classes has increased from 10 percent to 30 percent since 2012, which Cline largely attributes to the event. The first BMIE jazz day was held over Zoom on March 20, 2021, and led by alumni of BHS jazz, who are BIPOC. 

Another issue identified by BMIE that may be contributing to the drop of enrollment of Black and Latinx students is the accessibility of middle school music classes. In BUSD middle schools, most music classes are held in zero period, before the regular school day begins. “This is a hardship for everyone, but it is particularly a hardship for people who have two parents who work, or who live further away from our campuses. And I think it really is a barrier more for kids of color than for white kids,” said Cline.  

According to Gidlund, music classes in middle school cannot be rescheduled given that BUSD middle school music teachers also teach at elementary schools during the day, necessitating that middle school classes be held before school starts. At BHS, there is a concert band and orchestra that meets during zero period, which does not require auditions, but includes some students who cannot participate in music during the school day. There is also a chamber wind and orchestra during the first period that students must audition for. However, according to Karen Wells, director of the BHS chamber and concert band, and music teacher in multiple BUSD elementary schools, the band and orchestra are planning to add more music classes during the school day in order to increase access. 

While there is still progress to be made towards leveling the playing field in BUSD music, and music as a whole, effort to achieve this goal will continue. “I’m really passionate about making music more equitable because specifically jazz is Black American music,” said Collins. “And I really feel like the people playing it should reflect that and honor that.”

Update: This article was changed to correct verb tense.