CLEVELAND, OH – Between 2003 and 2004 I served as a member of the Financial Planning & Supervision Commission the state assigned to pull the East Cleveland Municipal School District out of fiscal emergency. The $12 million surplus former Superintendent Hayward Sims left the district had been turned into a $19 million deficit by his replacement, Elvin Jones, within 5 years.
Donshon Wilson’s contract was one of those up for cancellation consideration and at the time he was not certified to teach music as a former Shaw High band drummer. School boards and superintendents are required to ensure students are taught to read, write and perform music while in elementary, middle and high school.
Wilson’s inability to teach music created the academic conditions for what has now been more than two decades of the state, East Cleveland’s school board and superintendent failing to deliver required music education training to public school students.
From my recollection of the resolution I voted for as a member of the Financial Planning and Supervision Commission, Wilson was given two years to become a certified music instructor. Myrna Loy Corley was who the school board selected to replace Jones as superintendent and it was her job to make sure Wilson fulfilled the terms and conditions of the resolution.
Retired Parma Superintendent Marsha Harrison, Ella Mae Bowman and Randolph Woods also voted in favor of the resolution. All served on the commission with me. I recall Wilson making a commitment to attain the credentials he needed to teach music to East Cleveland’s musically-inclined students; and that’s the word I expected him to keep.
At a Battle of the Bands held at Cleveland State University’s Convocation Center during my term as East Cleveland’s mayor from January 1, 2006 through December 31, 2009, I remember interacting with Wilson and wanting to know why Shaw High Band students didn’t have any music score sheets with them. He told me he “still” wasn’t teaching them to read music. They learned songs by “ear” from recordings.
The Shaw High Band had become nothing more than a well-publicized extracurricular activity since Wilson was not a certified music instructor. Music, pursuant to Section 3313.60(A)(7) of the Ohio Revised Code, is a required subject for all Ohio schools. The law reads “in part” as follows:
“(A) The board of education of each city, exempted village, and local school district and the board of each cooperative education school district established, pursuant to section 3311.521 of the Revised Code, shall prescribe a curriculum for all schools under its control. Except as provided in division (E) of this section, in any such curriculum there shall be included the study of the following subjects: (7) The fine arts, including music …”
The Ohio Department of Education offers a set of kindergarten through 12th grade standards or a model curriculum that has students learning to read and write music beginning in the 2nd grade. From the 9th through 12th grades they’re supposed to be working in music creating groups and able to possess the basic skills of competent sight music readers and composers. From the perspective of my Baby Boomer’s generation, Shaw High should have been producing young Quincy Jones’ or the musical equivalent of a Lebron James.
Wilson resigned on June 25, 2021 from a job with the East Cleveland school district as director of communications and technology after 24 years of not teaching music. Director of communications and technology was not Wilson’s “deal” with the residents of East Cleveland when I voted to temporarily save his job in 2003-2004. He was supposed to teach their children enough music to consider it among the well-paying professions.
The average salary of a musician in a city orchestra is $150,000 annually. There’s work scoring soundtracks for films, commercials, albums and performing with the best known bands on the planet. There’s work behind the scenes, back stage, with record labels and production companies. There’s work writing about bands and recording artists as well as photographing their performances. A competent music educator coaching musically gifted children in East Cleveland schools should have now produced a list of students who have made it a career.
What it appears Corley and the school district’s treasurer did with Wilson was to pay him under the title of an administrator to oversee a popular non-accredited extra-curricular activity. Parents who had no idea about the mandated higher music standards the state required the school district to provide didn’t know their children were being robbed.
The Shaw Rhythm Teens is a stage band that existed under Dr. Fulton’s “certified” instruction when I attended Shaw and it’s now under the direction of a band booster parent named Randolph Woods. Music instruction appears to be incorporated into the study ethics of the Rhythm Teens. The state’s music curriculum law doesn’t limit music instruction to just a handful of select students.
I play trumpet today at the age of 67 and played in the band of every school I attended beginning in the 3rd grade in East Saint Louis, Illinois at the age of 9. From the onset of my music instruction I learned to sight read music.
I placed emphasis on the word “read” because music like every other profession has its own vocabulary-expanding language. Students who aren’t learning to read the music associated with playing an instrument are being robbed of an expanded vocabulary by their school boards.
When I attended Shaw High School from 1970 – 1972, Dr. Alvin G. Fulton taught “music composition” and “music theory” for those students who had an interest during my 10th through 12th grades. It meant a serious music student graduating from Shaw High School had the blueprint for the skillsets owned by legendary music producers like Quincy Jones. I made time for the school’s “sheet music reading” orchestra. It wasn’t just Shaw High’s band I played in upon arriving in Cleveland in 1969 whose instructors taught music.
My father moved us around until he settled on East Cleveland after he got a job driving a bus for the Cleveland Transit System; and worked out of the Windermere station within walking distance from our home. Music had become so engrained in my curriculum from the 3rd through 9th grades in East Saint Louis that I automatically enrolled in the bands or orchestras at Harry Davis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Adams with other “music reading students” in Cleveland.
There were talent shows all over the city and high school students were recording albums and touring. Music arranger and composer Dunn Pearson, Jr. was studying at John F. Kennedy High School at 15 while recording and performing with the O’Jays and the Ponderosa Twins for Chuck Brown’s SARU Records in the 1960’s.
I can think of three Shaw High School orchestra students Dr. Fulton guided during my time at the school who have enjoyed successful careers in music. Saxophonist Bernard Frederick Watts, trumpeter Dennis Bradley Reynolds and Tony Award winning arranger, composer and pianist Daryl Waters.
I ran into Bernard backstage in San Antonio when he was touring with the O’Jays. I was photographing and interviewing acts for the San Antonio Community Journal after serving in the U.S. Air Force. When we ran into each other again he was performing with Lola Falana‘s band and I was covering a story about the show for the Call & Post.
Dennis Bradley Reynolds has played with Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, Steve Lawrence, Edie Gorme, Roberta Flack and George Clooney’s mother and singer Rosemary Clooney.
Daryl Waters is a Broadway – Off Broadway music composing legend. Ain’t Misbehavin, Jelly’s Last Jam, Bring in Da’ Noise, Bring in Da’ Funk, Street Corner Symphony, Memphis: the new musical, the Cher Show. He arranged for Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis Jr.
I’ve asked more recent Shaw High graduates to identify Shaw High Band members they knew who were working music professionals and they could identify … none. The most prominent person associated with the Shaw High Band is Wilson.
Wilson’s dual role as an “administrator,” and as the director of an extracurricular activity competing with the athletic department among other extra student interests, has created serious budgeting and accountability issues for the district’s treasurer. If current superintendent Dr. Henry Pettigrew were asked to validate that music is being taught in accordance with the state’s model curriculum by certified instructors under the mandates of Section 3313.60(A)(7) of the Ohio Revised Code, he cannot produce the supporting documentation to prove it.
Wilson has been quoted in media reports as saying East Cleveland students weren’t learning to play instruments until they reached high school. That’s the fault of the school boards and superintendents. Giving students those “funky azzed” recorders instead of access to real instruments was the school district leadership’s lazy way out of compliance. It’s understood that Wilson made do with what he was given. That doesn’t excuse his lack of music certification.
The East Cleveland school board’s failure to appoint a superintendent who understood the importance and power of music in a child’s life created a school district parents with musically-inclined children chose not to send them. Wilson didn’t uplift East Cleveland’s musically-inclined students or make a music education attractive. He uplifted himself.
Wilson, as a so-called musician, didn’t also see the value in music credentials or a career in the industry for himself; so he’s not instilled a value in music credentials or a music career in his students. Their only connection to a so-called “real” musician is to an uncertified instructor whose musical ambition didn’t extend beyond playing snare drums in a high school band.
The school district’s ex-employee voluntarily-resigned but like in the past he’s hoping political pressure will bring him back. A June 28th rally turned out around 30 supporters.