NYC Teacher · Teacher Voices · Teaching in NYC

Ending the School to Prison Pipeline…With a Trumpet!!

(This is a guest post by Joseph S. Lento, a licensed Teacher of Orchestral Music and School District Administration. In 2014, President Obama named him a National Teacher of Arts and Humanities. Joseph also has commendations from Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. In 1999, he was named NYC Public Schools Bronx County High Schools Teacher of the Year. Learn more at his website, 

Coming from a broken home, I can state with absolute certainty that a trumpet changed my life. A trumpet kept me connected to self reflection and therefore kept me away from doing the damaging things many ‘unconnected’ young people do as they’ve no sense of ‘connection’ to themselves, or others. 

When people live in a world of real or imagined isolation, all aspects of their life are severely compromised. Music creates a connection to mindfulness of the heart. When both are in sync, people do not gravitate to harmful behaviors that damage themselves and others. 

We know the healing and restorative powers that playing an instrument has, yet we still deny that opportunity to so many underserved and minority communities. Playing an instrument in an ensemble instills and promotes true camaraderie of one’s mind, heart and literally their breath, which I call the soul.

Let’s switch tunes for a moment, pun and ensuing puns intended. We have a crisis in our youth that, according to The Center for Popular Democracy in 2013, sang to the tune of  $746,000,000 per year spent on programs in New York City Public Schools on the criminalization of its students! Instead of these children being surrounded by healthy and uplifting music programs, they are surrounded by over 5500 Police Officers and 4600 School Safety Officers assigned to schools throughout New York City. 

According to that same report, in 2016, nearly 12,000 students were removed from class for behavior related issues five or less days, totaling a little more than 100,000 days of student suspensions. The report went on to cite that another group of students were suspended from classes between five and one hundred eighty days for a near total of 200,000 days in suspension from school. Does this sound like a sustainable policy to you? No, it does not and it must end now!

It’s time we start listening to Kodaly, Billings, Orff, Dalcroze, Pestalozzi, Mason and Lento! That’s right, Lento! Of course these great masters of Music Education and Musical exceptionalism stand alone, yet they never saw the impact music had on children who attended the New York City Public Schools I taught at and attended. But I did and I recorded those extremely impressive results.

In 1998, I conducted my first formal study on the impact of Instrumental Music and its effects on the academic and social well being of students at Herbert H. Lehman High School Bronx, NY. 

My study included nearly two hundred students in two distinct groups. One group had a minimum of two years of learning in my Instrumental Music program, while the other group did not. In every academic subject, the students with a minimum of two years in my Instrumental Music program scored between fifteen and nineteen points higher in all subjects than did those students who were not in my program. The comparative overall grade averages between the two groups was 87.1% to 69.4%

The study also measured Community Service, which in today’s world, we can use to help measure a student’s Socio-Emotional Wellness. This measurement is in many ways more crucial than the academic subject measurements because it shows the connectedness students have to their community. In this measurement, the students in my program were all involved in Community Service while the students who were not in my program were (to a student) not involved in any type of Community Service. These higher level outcomes of the students in my program are the outcomes available for criminalized students if we demand it. All the results are available at absolutely no charge and are yours for the asking. So, where does this leave our students who are being criminalized? It leaves us with the opportunity to finally change this epidemic of despair!

I’ve developed a program I call ‘The Brass Comets.’ Its initial ideation was to bring a viable Instrumental Music program to schools that didn’t have one. Then, as I was formulating my philosophy for the program, I realized that my vision was narrow. Having worked these past thirty-five years with students in challenged communities (and reading more and more about incarcerated and criminalized student populations), I understood that The Brass Comets program would be a wonderful vehicle for students to seek better and prosperous outcomes, but unless the political powers change this paradigm, the outlook for these children will remain grim. Spending nearly Seven Hundred and Fifty Million Dollars per year to criminalize our students must end now! That is the real crime!

What do you think?

More Comments