The first bell has just rung at Boston’s English High, a school that has been an epic failure for so long that the state has threatened to take it over. A dozen students are gathered in a fluorescent-lit room, and they are loud. So loud that you can hear them all the way down the corridor and through the cafeteria doors. So loud that they drive every thought from your head but one: Dance.
English High has a drumline. Reggie, Miasia, Australia, and the other kids stand behind tenor, bass, and snare drums. Guided through a complicated series of cadences by music teacher Eytan Wurman’s whistle, the players weave their beats into a groove that rises up and goes through you. Boom-ba-boom-ba-boom, rat-tat-tat-tat-tat, boom-ba boom-ba-boom, rat-tat-tat.
“It feels good now,” Wurman says when they’re done and grinning. “Whoo!”
We are halfway through this make-or-break school year. We don’t yet know whether Ligia Noriega-Murphy will manage what so many headmasters before her could not – making English High more than the school kids are stuck with when they can’t get in anywhere else.
But there are some promising signs. The kids in the drumline, all but one of whom had never played before September, show up — to class, to parades, and to football games, where they pump up bigger crowds than English High has seen in years. At last year’s annual Thanksgiving Day game against Boston Latin there was music on both sides of Harvard Stadium for the first time in decades.
It’s not skyrocketing test scores or perfect attendance or stellar behavior, all of which English High is still working on. But one thing that seemed impossible just a year ago has happened here. And that one thing has the power to influence others.
“There is the potential for us to gain serious pride in what happens under this roof,” says Wurman, who began in September. Kids are more likely to care about a school they feel pride in. And they’re more likely to feel confident in other classes if Wurman can teach them to be good at music, a subject in which knowing limited English or repeating ninth grade has no relevance.
In his two years at Boston Latin Academy, Wurman took the school from no choirs to three, plus a chamber singers ensemble. He expanded the band offerings to include three skill levels. At English High, he plans similar growth. He wants to turn the drumline into a full band next year, and eventually introduce an orchestra.
You might be skeptical that he can pull off such feats here. Especially if you sit in on one of the three huge choir classes he teaches every day.
Wurman, a Palo Alto native in his mid-20s, has his students sing songs they know — “Payphone” and “Hall of Fame” — sneaking in music theory along the way: “Can anybody tell me if there is vibrato in this song?” Then he pushes them, into techno, country, or opera.
“O sole mio . . . , ” he sings, performing the whole song beautifully. “I got paid five hundred bucks to do that once,” he said when the applause died down.
It’s working with some of them: Kids who lope into his classroom oozing attitude whoop their way through vocal exercises some might find embarrassing. And at the school’s first-ever Winter Gala in December (worth a look at Englishhs.org), a couple dozen teenage boys performed Frank Ocean’s “Thinking About You,” complete with falsetto chorus.
Then there are the other kids, the boys who keep talking, even after Wurman appeals to them in his very respectful way. And the bored-looking girls who refuse to stand up, let alone sing. At any point, about 20 kids refuse to participate. If Wurman gets these kids to invest, it will be a miracle.
Still, 50 kids seem into it, some of them singing their hearts out.
At English High, some miracles have already happened.