CARSON — Danny Willett, 17, a trumpet player for Carson High School's "Ever Awesome Marching Blue Thunder" band and drill team, jerked his thumb at the banner displayed on the wall of the classroom.
"That's ours," he said, brimming with pride of ownership.
In bold red and blue letters, the banner declared Carson's the best big band in the Los Angeles school district, giving the South Bay school its fourth consecutive championship. Carson was one of 12 teams competing in the 12th annual districtwide competition held Jan. 25 at the Sports Arena.
Willett and his 262 band and drill team colleagues were ecstatic over their victory, particularly because no Los Angeles school has ever won four championships in a row. Equally noteworthy, however, is the fact that Carson's Colts, the largest band and drill team unit in the district, has maintained its size and quality despite a district rule on grades that has depleted many high school bands.
Keep Grades Up
Since 1983, students' participation in the district's band and drill team contest has depended not only on playing well and marching smartly but on their grades in academic classes. In order to participate in any extracurricular activity, from chess club to football, Los Angeles school district students must maintain a C average and cannot fail any course. The board adopted the rule primarily out of concern for student athletes who excelled in sports at the cost of a poor academic record, some graduating without the skills needed to find a job.
But the rule has affected more students in non-sports programs such as drama, yearbook and choir, than in after-school athletics, because more students join those activities than athletic teams, a district official said. Students in both athletic and non-athletic programs have been known to forge the grade reports they are required to submit to remain eligible for extracurricular programs.
Last week Lincoln High School on the Eastside was stripped of its first-place finish in the division for bands of 39 to 59 members when district authorities learned that a student had doctored a mid-term report card to avoid being disqualified. The title went instead to second-place Cleveland High School in Reseda.
Franklin High School in Highland Park, third-place winner in the small-band category of 29 or fewer members, lost more than half of its original 49 band members to poor grades when mid-term marks were issued, director Richard Quon said. Several instrumental sections were almost wiped out, including the drum, tenor saxophone, clarinet and flute sections.
Lost Only Three
Carson's 152-piece marching band, on the other hand, was reduced by only three members who had failing grades. It has been able to maintain its size and quality despite the C-average, no-fail rule through an aggressive system of grade monitoring.
"That is something we have to look at here," said Venice High School band leader Carmen Falso. Venice, which took second place in the big-band division of 60 or more members, lost 10 of its 90 players to poor grades before the district finals last month.
Some say that Carson's success stems from band director James Berk's diligent grade checking and constant student counseling.
"He is a very conscientious, dedicated teacher with a tremendous amount of energy who really cares about his students," said Frank Harris, music director for the senior high school division. "What that band has accomplished is a direct result of his efforts."
Danger of Flunking
Sixteen-year-old Mike Vasquez, a talented percussionist, was in danger of flunking four classes at the beginning of last semester. When asked how he managed to stay in the band, he pointed at Berk.
"He told me my life was going to end if I didn't pass," Vasquez said, grinning slyly. "He said . . . that I would never be in band again."
While that may sound overly harsh, the warning was effective. The percussion player wound up passing all his classes and stayed in the band. "He made me work hard," Vasquez said, "(but) I had something to work for--band."
Berk said he told the student "in no uncertain terms" that he would lose his place in the band if his grades did not improve. "Some kids just need counseling," the band director said. "He needed a kick in the rear."
Berk, 26, was involved in high school bands long before he assumed the directorship at Carson. An alumnus of Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, he was a member of the first all-district band in 1974. While a student at UCLA, he worked as an assistant band director at Venice, Kennedy and Birmingham high schools. This year he is one of 11 finalists for the Music Center "Bravo" awards given to outstanding music and art teachers.
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