Friday, February 23, 2024 Feb 23, 2024
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Showdown at Grammy High

Booker T. Washington has turned out several Grammy winners—Norah Jones and Erykah Badu, to name just two. But a new principal and the controversial music director could change all that.
By Ellise Pierce |

In a boxy room at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in downtown Dallas, where walls stretch nearly 15 feet high, there are constant reminders of the task at hand. Near the door is a poster of Miles Davis. On another wall is a sign that reads, “No music, no life.” Nearly every other inch of space is covered with awards given to students here, most of them from Downbeat magazine, the Rolling Stone of jazz. The school has received 142 awards in all, more than any other learning institution in the country, including colleges and universities.

One day last spring, in this same space, instructor Bart Marantz, a musician who once traveled with Ray Charles, spoke to a small group of students about one of their upcoming gigs at the Lakewood Theater. “It’s business attire,” he said. Then, anticipating the response, with a sly smile, he added, “I know, but you can take the tie off when you enjoy the $50 dinner.” Everyone laughed.

With that out of the way, Marantz got down to business and led the six-person jazz combo through Bronislaw Kaper’s jazz classic, “One Green Dolphin Street.” “That’s pretty amazing,” he said. “Now let’s do a little bit of [John Coltrane’s] ’Giant Steps.’”

Inspiring students to play at professional levels is something that Marantz has done for more than two decades as an instructor at Booker T., also known as Arts Magnet, or, to insiders, simply Arts.

“If you’ve got talent, here you’re going to fly,” Marantz said last year. “I don’t consider myself a teacher, but a coach. It’s about coaching the finest of the finest.”

Indeed, the list of accomplished alumni from the school reads like a who’s who of music. Norah Jones, a 1997 graduate, won five Grammys this year; Erykah Badu, class of ’89, has four and received three nominations this year. Jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, class of ’88, with two Grammys, got one nomination. Other famous grads include Edie Brickell of Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, class of 1985; Danny O’Brien and Alan Emert, trumpeter and drummer, respectively, for the Grammy-winning polka band Brave Combo; and members of the gospel group God’s Property, which also has won Grammys.

But this semester, for the first time in the school’s history, students are transferring out of the esteemed music department. And Marantz’s award-winning jazz program—along with a number of other specialty music classes, for which the school is best known—is in jeopardy of disappearing for good, staffers say. Says one teacher, “There will be no more Erykah Badus and Norah Joneses.”

Teachers and students blame new principal Kenn Franklin and the new music director, Beverly Chinn, for ruining the school that has built a national reputation for excellence. They say Franklin, who some teachers call “Cowboy” behind his back, and Chinn, who has referred to the school’s popular jazz and Latin ensembles as “noise,” are destroying the school because they don’t understand it.

No one would agree to speak on the record for this article, for fear of being fired. Franklin instructed teachers in a staff meeting not to be interviewed by D Magazine. (Some did, anyway. Their names have been omitted from this article to protect them.) Said 18-year-old senior and student council president Philip Brock, “They’re scared to death.”

For two and a half years, Kenn Franklin ran his own barbecue catering company, Saddle Rock Catering, in Ben Wheeler, Texas. To inaugurate the 2002-3 school year, his first year as principal of Arts, Franklin hitched a 16-foot smoker to the back of his pickup truck; drove it in from Ben Wheeler to the front lawn of the school; and, wearing jeans, an open-necked shirt (no tie), and cowboy boots, he served up brisket, sausage, and hot links to students and teachers.

Everyone agrees that barbecue is something Franklin does phenomenally well.

Since its meager beginnings in 1922 as the city’s first black high school and its eventual metamorphosis into an arts “magnet” in 1976, Arts has become a prototype for similar schools across the country. For years, the school has enjoyed success (see “The Best Public High Schools” on p. 113).

Kenn Franklin, 44, originally from Tyler, is unlike any previous Arts Magnet principal. For one thing, he’s white. Other than taking a college theater class, he has no arts background. He was once a high school principal in the town where the hamburger was invented—Athens, Texas (population 11,297)—and, for 15 years, he worked as either a principal or a coach and teacher at a number of even smaller Texas schools. He doesn’t live in Dallas. His home is near Ben Wheeler in East Texas, more than an hour away, where he has a dog named Chili, four or five cats, and a few longhorn steers.

Franklin says he loves his new job. “I’ve gone home every day and told my wife what a great place this is to work—what a charge, being around our students. I plan to be here a long time.”

He also says he has a long-term goal for Arts. “My vision for the school is to be nationally recognized and internationally recognized,” he says. But most would say that the school already has achieved that.

“The school is known worldwide for its accomplishments in the arts,” says Andrae Rhyne, who served as Arts principal for four years before getting promoted to DISD’s fine arts director. (He now works as a specialist in the district’s teacher certification department.) “Likewise, if you look at a few of the alumni, you can say that the school has had a measure of success. It makes me question if we’ve been doing it wrong all these years. At least allow us to continue to do it wrong if we’ve gotten the results we’ve gotten.”

Franklin wants more. “I think there’s always room for improvement,” he says.

And so, before his nameplate arrived, Franklin decided to make some immediate and drastic faculty changes at the award-winning school, starting with a new music director. Doug Cornell, a former music professor at Angelo State University, with a doctorate in music composition from the University of North Texas, as well as three other music degrees, started the school’s music program in 1977. But Cornell retired, and in June of last year, Franklin assembled a panel to review possible hires for the vacant music director position. He asked Lily Weiss, head of the school’s dance department; Delores Thompkins, director of the visual arts department; and the director of the Turtle Creek Chorale, Dr. Timothy Seelig, to help.

“There was no music faculty on the committee to choose the new music director,” one teacher says. “I was appalled.”

Surprisingly, there were few applicants for the position because the job requires a special kind of person—one who is not only a talented musician and teacher, but also one who has a knack for negotiating the sticky relationships between students, teachers, and often overbearing parents. In short, the right person for the position would be part diplomat, part music-aholic, and as easygoing as a Lab.

Two current staff members applied: the school’s electronic music director, Otis Gray, who also founded the school’s Latin ensemble, the only one of its kind in the country; and Luis Martinez, the school’s band director. Gray is an Arts Magnet alumnus and has taught there for seven years; Martinez has been there more than 20 years. Two other Dallas-area teachers also applied.

A friend of Seelig’s applied for the job, too. Her name is Beverly Chinn, and after just one interview, the former choir director at Kimball High School, with 20 years of experience and a Ph.D. (which neither of the Arts applicants could claim) landed one of the juiciest jobs in the district. In music circles, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Franklin would not comment on the hiring of Chinn. “I’m not going to personnel. We’re not going down that road,” he says. “I’m very comfortable in how we select people. We bring in key teachers in this building and have them be part of the process. That’s part of my leadership style.”

Word of the Chinn hiring got around fast. Before the first rack of ribs made it to Franklin’s smoker on the first day of school, the new principal was already making more enemies than friends.

When pressed to name a positive trait about the new music director, Arts faculty members admit that Chinn is incredibly organized. “She can put together a syllabus faster than anybody I’ve ever seen,” one teacher says. “She’s a very good teacher but a terrible coordinator.” Chinn, like Franklin, quickly fell out of favor with the faculty and students.

When Chinn hired Gloria Stephens as the new choir director. Students immediately began to complain. “She came in with the attitude that she didn’t want to teach the class,” says student council president Brock, who was a vocal major. “She had a negative attitude, and it went down from there.”

Nyadia Steward, 18 (class of ’03), now a music education major at University of Texas at Arlington, also took choir from Stephens last year. “She was very negative,” Steward says. “She told me and another student that we never sounded good, in the first month of school. I felt like I was being gypped in my education. I was appalled that we were put down so much.”

That’s not all. Stephens and Chinn (whom the faculty refers to as the music department’s “co-coordinators,” because of their closeness) tried to cut one of the school’s most popular music classes. According to Brock and other students and teachers at the school, the pair wanted to remove the Entertainers, an 18-year-old, choreographed show choir, from the schedule—not because there weren’t enough students, but because neither supported the class. Chinn told one teacher that the school didn’t need classes devoted to groups like the Entertainers (of which Erykah Badu was a member) and the Lab Singers (of which Norah Jones was a member), because students could learn a song or two, and the technique that went along with it, instead.

After Brock and more than a dozen other students voiced their concerns to the administration about losing the Entertainers and complained about Stephens in particular, the class stayed on the schedule, and Chinn found another teacher for it. Brock, like a number of other students—including Steward’s younger sister Natalie—has now transferred out of the coveted music cluster and into dance.

Some of the students faced similarly abrupt and unexpected curriculum changes, which meant that they could no longer take the classes they came to Arts for—namely, the specialty classes. Instead, they say, Chinn is emphasizing a classical, traditional approach to music, even though classical programs aren’t what make the school—and its students—unique. Norah Jones was in the synth program. She also took classical piano, jazz combo, electronic keyboard, jazz singers, and choir. If she were attending Arts Magnet today, she wouldn’t be able to do this, one teacher says, because Chinn has said that students must have only one area of emphasis in music, and once a major is declared, it can’t be changed after the 10th grade.

“They’re killing the school,” says Arts grad Tyrone Smith Sr. (class of ’81), a professional keyboardist, whose son, Tyrone Smith Jr., is a senior at the school and is unable to take the classes he’d planned on because they’ve been cut. “I’m in jazz combo,” Smith Jr. says, “but there used to be classes like jazz arranging, jazz improv, classes like that. I can’t take jazz arranging, because of a lack of students. There’s a threat that jazz improv will be cut, because there are only three people in the class now. I’m angry that I worked hard and won’t be able to do what I planned to do.”

Smith Jr., a jazz saxophone and piano player, beefed up his academic schedule in lower grades so he could concentrate his senior year on music. He had planned to take eight classes. Instead, he’s taking two. Chinn had a suggestion. “She said I could take vocal,” he says. “Why would I want to take vocal? I don’t know if she knows what the school is about.”

Teachers say they can’t discuss their concerns with Chinn, because, unlike Cornell, she rarely holds staff meetings. “Between December and March of last year, we didn’t have a single faculty meeting,” one teacher says. “Dr. Cornell had meetings every week. It was a way to talk about what we were all doing, to talk about the students. When Chinn was hired, the communication shut down.”

The last straw for many—faculty and students—was the firing of Gabriel Sanchez last spring.

By all accounts, Sanchez was one of Arts Magnet’s most esteemed and gifted musicians and teachers. He was a disciple of Russian pianist Vladimir Viardo, a featured soloist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and an Arts alumnus (class of ’89). “Gabriel was a modern-day Mozart,” one teacher says. “You’d ask him about one piece of music, and he’d give you a five-minute lecture on when it was written, who inspired it, and the poem on which it was based. He turned that little black box into magic.”

But Sanchez, who often ran late, and Chinn, who prefers precision and timeliness, didn’t see eye to eye, faculty members say. They also believe that Chinn was threatened by Sanchez’s talent, his popularity, and his support from the staff.

“I think when you’re a person of average talent, you don’t understand a Gabriel Sanchez, you don’t understand the jazz capabilities of a (jazz piano teacher) Kent Ellingson or a Bart Marantz,” one teacher says. “Just because you have a lot of letters after your name doesn’t mean that you’re smart.”

Unlike Chinn, Sanchez was universally adored. Nonmusic majors were on waiting lists for his classes, but they didn’t need to be—he gave them free private lessons after school, on weekends, or whenever he could find a chunk of time. He also started a philosophy club after school. Chinn wants after-school activities kept to a minimum. Staffers describe her as a “9 to 4:30’er.”

Sanchez knew his days at Arts were numbered. Last May, Sanchez was immediately sent home after Franklin discovered he’d given his students a letter asking for their support, along with their parents’, about his pending dismissal. Shortly thereafter—despite a letter-writing campaign by parents and teachers at both Arts and around the district, dozens of closed-door meetings with the principal, speeches before the school board, a student petition and protest—Sanchez was let go.

Franklin has said publicly that Sanchez was fired because he had less seniority than another piano teacher, and that was simply the way that it had to be. “There were not enough students to fill two teaching positions in [piano],” Franklin says, meaning that there were not 12 students in each of Sanchez’s classes, an arbitrary rule that has not been enforced. “I’m not in a position to break the rules. People who say that Principal Franklin shouldn’t have done that really haven’t sat in the principal’s seat.”

But Rhyne has, and he doesn’t agree. “You have to make decisions that are consistent with the mission of the school,” he says. “What is the mission of Arts Magnet? If it is to offer classes that are unique, then I would try to keep the spirit of the mission.”

“I’ve got classes with fewer than 12, and I still have those classes,” Franklin admits in a different conversation. “I try to stay within the ballpark. I’m within a comfort zone. Some areas where we don’t have those 12 are classes like costume design. We have eight in those classes. You gotta use common sense.”

Last spring, the school’s most famous alumna, Norah Jones, received five Grammys for her first album, Come Away With Me. To mark the occasion, a group of teachers from the music department, including ex-music director Cornell, gathered for a Grammy-watching party at a Richardson sports bar. Everyone whooped and clapped whenever Jones’ name was mentioned, and they stood up and cheered every time she received a Grammy. KTVT-TV Channel 11 carried the party live; so did Access Hollywood. Someone called Norah Jones on her cell, and the phone was passed around so her old instructors could give their congratulations. People magazine ran a story, too, with the headline, “Grammy High.”

Chinn did not attend. Franklin wasn’t there, either.

Many question Franklin’s ability to do the job and believe that he is ruining the legacy of the scrappy arts school. They say he focuses on what’s not important. When the Dallas Morning News ran a front-page story last year bragging about the school’s nine Grammy nominees, Franklin was furious. One of the four photographs that accompanied the lengthy, flattering piece included a student in the background who was wearing a sleeveless shirt, a violation of the dress code.

“I think those are important things for instruction,” Franklin says. “The things I’ve asked [teachers] to do isn’t out of line. These are just sound practices, to maintain the integrity of a quality education. I do enforce the policies of the district, and I expect anyone employed by the district to follow those policies.”

Dress-code enforcement is a big thing with Franklin, and teachers are instructed to be on the lookout for violations, such as untucked shirts, as well as take a hard look in the mirror themselves. Male teachers are required to wear ties and are reprimanded if they forget to knot it up or, as in the case of one teacher, if they wear a tie like a belt.

“The district dress code clearly states that male teachers must wear a tie,” Rhyne says. “It also says that a principal can make exceptions. …. Depending on how we as leaders interpret policy, we have a huge impact on the organizations we supervise.”

But Franklin’s fashion policing may have a loftier goal. The school kicked off a $20 million capital campaign for a new building last year, and part of the pitch to lure prospective donors into writing fat checks includes a tour through the school, so they can see students in cramped classrooms for themselves. After all, who would want to donate money to a school with slovenly students?

JoLynne Jensen, executive director of the advisory board that’s heading up the fundraising campaign, says that the friction within the school hasn’t had the slightest impact. “It’s not affecting the fundraising at all,” she says. “The building project is going to transcend all of that.”

Jensen says that most of the existing school building will be destroyed to make way for the new structure. The only section that will remain is a protected Texas landmark built in 1922. June 2005 is the start date for construction, she says, but it may be moved to the following year.

So where will the students go when the old building comes down? “Those are loose ends,” she says. “We have about five trains on different tracks.”

But one might argue that the school has already been destroyed. Says one teacher, who admits to spending many late nights crying about the current state of the school, “It’s extremely personal. This beautiful thing is dying. And nobody cares. It breaks my heart.”

He, like many others, is looking for a new job.

Franklin, meanwhile, has made another new hire. A hall monitor.

Ellise Pierce has written for People, Newsweek, and Jane.


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