Drive down 36th Street SW between Buchanan and Division on a fall day, and the sound of trumpets, trombones, clarinets, flutes and drums fills the air. As it does every year on the field outside Godwin Heights High School, the marching band plays on.
“The kids work one of the hardest schedules in marching band,” said band director Jake Castillo. They rehearse rain or shine for three hours every Monday and Wednesday and eight hours on Saturdays, from summer through late fall. In October this school year, they also competed every weekend.
In Godwin Heights, 160 middle and high school students continue a treasured tradition: the outstanding band program. For decades the marching band has tallied first- and second-place finishes at competitions, earned titles, and made appearances at festivals and events. They have won six state championships in Flight IV since 2004, taking second place in 2015 and fourth place this school year. They play at venues like Ford Field, in Detroit, and Lucas Oil Stadium, in Indianapolis.
“Our band is a huge component of Godwin pride, and another reason we look around and say, ‘It’s a great day to be a Wolverine,'” said Superintendent William Fetterhoff.
Keeping the Music Turned On
But having a top-shelf music program can be difficult when parents don’t have money to shell out for instruments, band camp or trips. In Godwin Heights, about 86 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. Once anchored by the former General Motors stamping plant, a 2-million-square-foot facility that closed in 2008, the 2 1/2 square-mile district was hit hard by the recession and has faced high unemployment and increased need. The loss of ancillary dollars from factory workers in the area led to shuttered businesses.
In the past decade or so, the free and reduced lunch rate has jumped from about 70 percent. With state funding not matching inflation, maintaining the music program has been challenging and required creativity, Fetterhoff said.
But Godwin Heights goes the extra mile by ensuring every student who wants to play can get an instrument in his or her hands.
During band class recently, students proudly played shiny new saxophones, flutes and clarinets, banged cymbals and pounded drums. The district pays for all students’ instruments, recently allocating $80,000 from the bond issue voters approved in May 2015 to the band program. Set aside for students is a stock of instruments –– everything from flutes to marimbas –– which are replaced as needed. Only five students own their own instruments.
“Our band program wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the support of the school, because our community can’t afford instruments,” Castillo said. “Every instrument is provided for every kid.
“It is the only competitive band program in the district that does that,” added Castillo, who took over the podium as director in 2015. He replaced Ryan Miller, current Cedar Springs band director, who 10 years before that replaced Marc Townley, current Byron Center High School band director.
“This program’s been supported in a way that allows us to maintain the same standards at you would see at any other (more affluent) school,” Castillo said. “It’s seen as a gem in the school.”
Parental Support is Crucial
But the Godwin Heights Band Association, a small group of very supportive parents, plays a huge role in keeping the program thriving, and that’s through lots of fundraising. They host poker nights, and band members make homemade chocolate treats to sell at district events and after the annual Wyoming Christmas Parade.
Dori McCourry, mom to band members Kaitlyn and Nicholas, played band at Godwin as well. She said parents support this band rain or shine, making props, sewing and fixing uniforms and flags, feeding the kids, moving equipment and tending to injuries, among other things. It’s about tradition, commitment and family.
“I feel it is an honor to help this band in any way possible to continue to teach our kids so many lessons,” McCourry said. “I feel my kids personally have benefited, as it has taught them to work hard and to believe in themselves and in what hard work can accomplish. They have learned how to pass on their knowledge to new students, and they take pride in themselves and their fellow band members.”
David Sweet, dad to senior Haley and freshman Skylar, said the fact that the district provides instruments is a big draw to students and parents.
“They don’t have to worry about buying or leasing an instrument, a cost some might find prohibitive,” Sweet said. “It also gives students the flexibility to try different instruments. They aren’t locked into playing a particular instrument simply because they have money invested; they can find the one that best fits them.”
Two-years of fundraising allowed 40 students –– about half the high school band –– to go to Disney World in November to perform at Disney Springs, participate in a workshop at Epcot Center, and enjoy the attractions. That was a big deal, Castillo said.
“I would toy around with the idea of going on less expensive trips, but the experience of going to Disney World isn’t going to be offered at any other place. So making it a part of the group is a cool thing,” added Castillo, who made it a mission to ride on an attraction with each student.
‘I feel it is an honor to help this band in any way possible.’ — Dori McCourry, band parent
The district also hosts band camp on site at Godwin Heights High School, complete with meals, allowing students a week in July devoted to band without the $300 fee of going to camp offsite.
A Program with ‘Purpose’
The 27-year-old Castillo brings enthusiasm to the band. The number of seventh-graders in band grew from from 38 to 62 from last year to this.
“People know what they have here with this program,” said Castillo, who provides after-school tutoring for his students. “There’s been a lot of pressure to continue what’s already been created as a successful band program because of how important it is for these kids. The reason the school supports it and I work so hard is there is so much purpose to giving kids at this school something that is world-class.”
As much as it’s about performing great music, it’s also about learning together, band members said.
“It feels like a family,” said senior tenor saxophone player Tony Zavala. “Everybody here is always supporting you to be better in your music and your school work.”
“It’s a place you can feel comfortable and help each other out,” said senior trombonist Amber Guzman.
Junior Eyvin Miranda, who plays clarinet, said band has made a difference in his life: “Personally, it’s how I developed my love for music.”