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Making music a priority – again – in high schools

A glimpse of students in the Deer Valley Academy of Performing Arts program, which offers dance, music and theater classes and performances.

Music has been an integral part of human culture for centuries, offering a universal language that transcends borders and brings communities together. 

In Contra Costa County, the role of music in schools is eliciting varying viewpoints on its importance and the level of participation youth should experience. Music education is low in some schools – some say – due to a lack of promoting programs; and in others, community programs are stepping in, finding innovative solutions to inform students.

School administrations, however, are not the only ones to blame. Fewer teachers across the country and a declining interest by students also are contributing to less teens joining music classes. 

Sixteen-year-old Gabriel Garcia is part of the music education program at Deer Valley High School in Antioch. The 10th grader said he and his peers feel schools are not doing an adequate job of letting students know about the music offerings and making them a priority as they once did in the past. During pre-pandemic levels at Antioch’s Park Middle School, and others that feed into Deer Valley, there used to be two music-focused classes, each with about 30 students participating. Today, only one class remains.

“I was talking to a few friends of mine the other day and they were saying how they’ve never heard of the choir program here or the orchestra program in (sic)  Deer Valley High School,” Garcia said. “Even though these programs have their academy to advertise for them, it hasn’t reached everyone.” Academies are in several local high schools, designed to give a more focused learning in niche areas like music and STEM.

A report released in January by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) shows fewer students are entering the education field in general. This report includes data that shows “there has been a 14 percent decline in music education graduates in the past decade.”

“The combination of the extensive number of educators leaving the field as the world emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, the increasing encroachment of political issues into the schools and a significant decrease in the number of students choosing education as a career pathway has created a perfect storm that has left many schools scrambling for staffing,” reads the report. “Music and the performing arts are not immune from this storm.”

At Dozier-Libbey Medical High School, Jo’Kharri Kelly said she sees the same lack of support from the administration. 

“The school has not advertised it,” the 10th grader said. “Even when I was a freshman, there wasn’t anything said about it.”

But not all is lost on students who have an interest in performing and/or playing an instrument or going without some form of music education. The San Francisco-based Community Music Center (CMC) has not only found solutions to address these issues, but also has seen an increase in participation. One reason for the active student engagement is the result of many alumni returning to the nonprofit as teachers.

“Over the past – I’m going to say 12 years, which is about the time I’ve been at Community Music Center – not only have we seen increased enrollment and engagement at our branches in the mission and the Richmond District, but also in community sites throughout the city,” CMC program director Silvia Sherman said.

This year, the 103-year-old music school has expanded to a new location in the city’s Mission District and increased enrollment and student engagement in their site activities. The CMC has advertised its programs extensively, using social media to reach new students and partnering with the San Francisco Unified School District to teach artists in 15 schools. 

“The most significant way that our artists are supporting the school district in making music education more equitable is through our participation in a mariachi music program in the school district,” Sherman said. “This program was founded to increase student participation, and it worked.”

By observing its surroundings, CMC found a way to engage students who would’ve otherwise not participated in the music programs. This in turn becomes a pipeline for students to join the CMC and become students there, as well. CMC also introduces and encourages its students to participate in their own school’s music programs.

“They get linked into our scholarship programs, our sliding scale tuition programs and so overall, that’s an example of how we’re both embedded in the community and then use it to connect our community-based programs,” Sherman said. “CMC’s mission is still relevant, adapting the program to meet the needs of the community today, which is an ever-evolving thing that is not a finished project but an active, vibrant, continually evolving process.” 

*Additional resources: 

Home – San Francisco Community Music Center (

Emma Mayta Canales is a 10th grader at Deer Valley High School in Antioch.

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