Even in the darkest hours, even when the daily news out of the District school system was a nonstop barrage of bulletins about guns, drugs, illiteracy and incompetence, the Eastern High School Choir cast the light of hope. In one of the city's toughest places, young voices rose above the lowest of expectations to compete and win on the world stage.
You couldn't hear them without knowing that these children had so much more to contribute than their teachers and schools could see.
But even the choir's extraordinary successes of the 1980s and '90s, the inspiring leadership of founder Joyce Garrett and the national acclaim that grew out of the kids' hard work could not withstand the grating failure and corruption in the D.C. schools.
Broke, desperate for new voices, buffeted by the chaos of a school that has seen seven principals in seven years, ground down by the petty battles of a system that eats its own, the Eastern choir is on life support. The chorus had to cancel its spring concert last year because there were no tenors. Barely a handful of male singers remain from what was once a refuge for boys seeking a place to thrive away from the pressures of the street.
Now the choir's outside board of trustees is considering cutting the cord to Eastern. Maybe, they figure, the chorus can survive as a citywide effort.
"The school is in such a state of decline," says Mary Ann Brownlow, who has served on the board for a decade. "There's been such turnover and turmoil. The board has realized they have to be pretty pragmatic about this. Unfortunately, the choir has always been a source of resentment among Eastern's faculty, rather than seeing it as this school's jewel."
Choir board President Clyde Jackson says that going citywide is not a done deal, but as "Eastern's infrastructure has continued to deteriorate, it's not been easy to recruit good singers, especially males." A citywide choir would have an easier time fundraising and finding voices, says Jackson, who grew up in Pittsburgh, where "music really helped a lot of kids, including myself, find something larger."
"That will be a huge loss," says school board member Tommy Wells (Wards 5 and 6). "Eastern has gone through so many principals who were just not up to the job. I would start over there with a new faculty."
Contrast Eastern's sad state with the artistic and academic attractions offered by the growing fleet of charter schools and you see why so many parents are switching. At Stokes Public Charter School on 16th Street NW, the choir has released its third CD, produced by its accomplished music director, Cheryl Jones. The student choir tours along with a spirited faculty chorus. A number of charter schools boast similar lures.
Are attractive extras enough to turn schools into thriving communities of learning? Not alone, but a great institution like the Eastern choir is far more than a showpiece. Over the past three years, while only six in 10 Eastern seniors continued on to college, nine in 10 choir members made that transition.
"Folks who are looking to reform the schools have a tendency to define success exclusively in terms of reading and math skills," without regard to the rest of education, says D.C. school board member Victor Reinoso (Wards 3 and 4). When charter schools let kids delve deeply into something -- robotics (Friendship Edison), culinary arts (The New School), the law (Thurgood Marshall Academy) -- it's no wonder parents flee the regular public schools.
Superintendent Clifford Janey has a line for music teachers in his new budget, Reinoso says, "but it's in the category of unmet needs, so it sits outside the confines of the budget request." It's a dream, far from reality.
So is anyone surprised that the city's best general high school is looking to escape from the system? If Wilson High in Tenleytown converts to a charter, as it is contemplating, "it would be a tremendous loss, and there's fear it could set off a domino effect," Reinoso says. "Do we lose an entire section of the city from the system?"
"I don't blame them," Wells says. "Conditions are deplorable there. If Wilson becomes a charter, they'd get a lot more money for their building right away."
As if we needed more of them, the Eastern choir's plight is a signal, a sign of rot, a call to action. Can't anyone hear this plaintive song?