The John Marshall High School Marching Band
The John Marshall High School Marching Band Credit: Paul Rochford / Signal Cleveland

Summer is right around the corner. And this year, there are more opportunities for Cleveland students to learn a new instrument, sing and act in a musical theater production, be in a marching band, or design the set for a play.

These opportunities can be explored through the summer music and theater camps offered at John Marshall High School. The camps are free, five-week programs available to kids of all ages from all across the district through CMSD’s Summer Learning Experience. Arts educators hope once kids get a taste of this new programming, there will be more demand for it in the fall. And that demand could provide the momentum to strengthen arts education in Cleveland schools long-term.

This June marks the third year of the Summer Learning Experience–the district’s revamped summer programming, which CEO Eric Gordon launched in 2021. This version of summer school promotes extracurricular opportunities and camps alongside the traditional offerings for students who need to catch up academically.

Under the new programming, students still focus on academics in the morning, but  afternoons are dedicated entirely to fun enrichment activities such as the music and theater camps.

What makes adding music and theater courses special is that for a long time, only a few schools offered them. Only one high school, John Marshall, has a marching band. Earlier this year, students at Glenville High School lamented that they didn’t have a marching band or even a drumline to cheer on their state champion football team. They asked CEO Gordon to change this.

John Marshall High School marching band students rehearse in the school's band room. In 2018, John Marshall High School started a band program after students petitioned.
John Marshall High School marching band students rehearse in the school’s band room. In 2018, John Marshall High School started a band program after students petitioned. Credit: Cleveland Metropolitan School District

Rebuilding arts education

CMSD’s Director of Arts Education Jeffery Allen told Signal Cleveland that the summer performing arts camps are part of a strategy to re-establish and build school music programs. Allen said most were reduced or gutted following the Great Recession in 2008. 

Allen said the recession was an “earth-shattering event” for public school arts programs. The district tried to rebuild, but the pandemic dampened progress. He said that it’s even difficult to get students involved in music or theater in high schools that have arts programs, because there are not many opportunities for learning those things in K-8 schools.

The CMSD budget shows a decrease in funding for the arts since the pandemic began. In 2019 the district allocated just over $500,000 for the arts department but budgeted a little under $250,000 for the department in the 2022-23 school year.

“Now we find ourselves in a lot of rebuilding,” Allen said. “So these [summer] programs are really designed to kind of boot-camp the type of experiences that get kids jolted into the program and to build the momentum for [year-round arts programs].”

Practice makes perfect

Coming out of the pandemic, Allen said, he and other department leaders built the summer camp programs from scratch; he said they are already developing nicely.

“What started as a program where kids were just learning to play their instruments, now we’re seeing more complex patterns and rhythms and greater student mentorship of the students who are new,” he said.

The summer program also helped build John Marshall’s marching band, which started with only 20 kids in 2018 and now has more than 200 students.

Allen also hopes that it will lead to the development of band programs at other schools, like Glenville. He laid out his strategy.

“The first part of the summer would be marching band camp with everybody so that everyone learns the same three or four songs. Then you go to your individual school and you learn your school-specific songs,” he said.

Allen and his department are building up the summer musical theater program in the same way. When the program began in 2021, students learned a few musical numbers. This summer (pending the rights to the play) students in grades K-12 will perform a version of the Broadway musical “A Year with Frog and Toad.” The set, lighting and costumes will be designed and built by students participating in the technical theater camp.

CMSD brings back its All-City Musical this year with Lin Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes' In the Heights.
CMSD brought back its All-City Musical this year with Lin Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ In the Heights. Credit: Paul Rochford / Signal Cleveland

Why it matters

Jay Dorfman, a Kent State University professor and coordinator of Music Education, told Signal Cleveland he applauds CMSD and other school districts that are enhancing their offerings in the arts, especially as we are coming out of the pandemic. He said he believes this helps students “readjust to the world by interacting with their peers in positive ways.”

He also added that music and other arts education is generally valuable to children, beyond being something to keep them occupied during summer months.

“Music education helps children be sensitive to the world. It helps them explore their emotions and their relationships with others, and it helps them find joy in music, which is one of the most joyous things we can do as humans,” he said. 

Dorfman said it’s good that these summer opportunities are available to elementary school kids because “when those early chances aren’t available, [the kids are] often left out at the upper school levels.”  

Dorfman said research confirms there are also cognitive, developmental and social benefits to participating in music, “so the more we can offer that as part of kids’ regular schooling opportunities, the greater the benefits they receive,” he said.

Other arts opportunities for kids

Other arts-related activities will also be available to students participating in the Summer Learning Experience. CMSD is offering a visual arts workshop series called “Stories without Words” where K-8 students learn to create comic strips, illustrate children’s books, or experiment with photojournalism. 

Additionally, CMSD is partnering with several organizations such as Cleveland Playhouse to provide more arts-based learning opportunities in the afternoon.

The City of Cleveland’s recreation centers are also offering 13 different summer arts programs, including theater programs at Karamu House and Cleveland Public Theater. The city also offers music lessons, dance classes and recording-arts training–all held at the recreation centers.

How to sign up for summer arts programs

K-12 Education Reporter (he/him)
Paul, a former City Year Cleveland AmeriCorps member based in a charter school, covered K-12 education for Signal Cleveland until August, 2023. Paul joined us from Cleveland Documenters, where he focused on creating infographics and civic tech to make public information more accessible. Paul is also a musician, photographer and graphic designer.