By Sarah Eutsler
The 2018-2019 Dr. William P. Foster Music Education Alliance Award for Excellence was awarded to Oliveira Middle School in Brownsville, Texas at December’s Midwest Clinic in Chicago.
Music for All joins forces with the College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA) and the National Band Association (NBA) to annually recognize outstanding music programs serving historically disadvantaged student populations through the Foster Project and Award for Excellence is an initiative of the Music Education Alliance.

Led by Director Gaspar Garcia and Assistant Directors Michael Kuntz, Victor Franco, and Robert Barron, the Oliveira Middle School band has proven to be a powerhouse driven by excellence, frequently taking home distinguished awards on state and national levels.

But on paper, the odds seem stacked against them: Nestled on the southern tip of Texas along the Gulf of Mexico, Brownsville shares its border with Metamoros, Mexico. The cultures and heritage of the two cities blend together and are often reflected through the band’s musical selections. They’re also reflected in the student population; Oliveira Middle School’s student body of over 1,200 students is almost 100% Hispanic, the majority coming from low income homes.

While this has often been a financial barrier for music programs, Oliveira, a Title I school, has risen to the challenge of adversity and flourished. Today, the program is over 400 members strong and the largest band in the Brownsville Independent School District (ISD).

“We have a very high standard from the very beginning,” said Garcia, who has been the Oliveira director since 2013.

But the team of directors also recognizes the fine line between being tough and building relationships with the students: He noted that members walk into the classroom facing a host of problems at home, including divorce, immigration, and hunger.“We really, really never know what’s going on at home,” he said.

Building trust is important:

“We try to connect a lot with students through sectionals,” Garcia said.

With those rehearsals the average member can spend up to four hours a day with the directors and fellow members, allowing them to build personal connections.“Then they feel like they can come to us,” he said.

That trust is important when it comes to addressing problems. Garcia said he has seen kids reform in the program, abandoning some of their behavioral problems. Being open to sitting down and talking with the students who are acting
out is key, allowing them to get more insight into what is going on in their lives. This approach was particularly important with one student who turned out to be involved in a human trafficking situation.

“[That conversation] would have never happened had I shut the door,” Garcia said.

Together the band has built a family- like environment: Members often refer to the directors by family titles – dad, uncle, grandpa, and big brother. All of the directors are fathers themselves.“We treat them like their own kids,” Garcia said. “We’re disappointed when they make mistakes but then we move on.”

Members are encouraged to give back in the program, not only to the Brownsville community, where they frequently perform, but to each other.

Kids leaving Oliveira are encouraged to make a mark and leave something behind. Some write letters of encouragement. Those who are not continuing with band donate their instruments back into the program, one of the key ways they continue to get instruments into students’ hands. Older students are also welcomed back to the program to help out.

“We always use former band kids who are in high school,” Garcia said.“We literally treat them like other directors.” The students respond well to this set-up.“There’s a lot of mentorship in this program.”

Building pride among members and creating a tight-knit band community is a large piece of their success. But there are still financial challenges.

“Many students do have a difficult time paying for an instrument so they can participate in the band program,” said Paul Flinchbaugh, retired Brownsville ISD Supervisor of Instrumental Music.“Garcia and his staff have helped the students overcome these circumstances.”

“My job, for me, is to teach them,” Garcia said. There’s no judgement for financial struggles and he focuses on doing what’s necessary to get an instrument into a student’s hands.

The band also fundraises every year to cover 100% of their trip to music festivals, where the Symphonic Band has received Superior Ratings, Best in Class, and Best Band Overall.

The band’s trip to San Antonio is special for many members who have not had an opportunity to travel before.

“A lot of kids do not and are not allowed to travel because of immigration status,” Garcia said. Some kids have even joined the band just for the trip, which Garcia doesn’t completely disapprove of; he’d rather have them in his classroom than getting in trouble elsewhere.

The impact of the program isn’t just limited to the band program walls: Oliveira Principal Cynthia S. Castro notes that the hard work and discipline members exhibit often spill over into all aspects of the student’s academic life. The community also takes pride in Oliveira’s success. During the state’s 85th Legislative Session, Texas State Senator Eddie Lucio presented proclamations in honor of both the band and Garcia.

“By every standard, the Oliveira Symphonic Band is one of the most outstanding bands in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and the most distinguished middle school band in Brownsville, Texas,” Castro said.

Their recognitions include the Symphonic Band’s consistent Superior Ratings from the University Interscholastic League and being the only middle school in the district and region to advance to the Texas Music Educators Association state level competition, where they received 5th in their class for Honor Band in 2015. In both 2016 and 2017 they received National Wind Band Honors National Winner Awards from the Foundation of Music Education’s Mark of Excellence program.

Fundraising plays a significant role: Like many other programs, they utilize opportunities like student lock-ins and popcorn sales to raise money. They also seek out and apply for grants to ease families’ financial burdens and give students rewarding growth opportunities. As a Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation grant recipient, the program has been able to put over $40,000 in instruments into students’ hands. Numerous members of the band have also had opportunities to attend summer band camp programs at Texas universities for free thanks to $10,000 in grant funding from the Lagunitas Brewing Foundation.

While Brownsville band programs have had their successes through the years – including Oliveira being a 1987 state CC Honor Band Champion – Garcia and his fellow directors are paving the way for a new generation of program prestige and impact on students throughout the community.

At the end of the day, Garcia sees the program’s success as a matter of never giving up on the students.“Give them every chance they need,” he said.“They just need someone to believe in them.”