Wayland professor won't let the music die

September 16, 2010

PLAINVIEW – Ask Debra Flournoy-Buford what she is passionate about and her answer probably won’t surprise you. But once you open the topic of conversation, her heartfelt level of passion just might blow you away.

Music, after all, is Dr. Flournoy-Buford’s profession. But it is music education, or the lack thereof, in our public school systems that ignites a fire deep within. Her desire to promote music education runs so deep that it fueled her doctoral research and dissertation, a 479-page tome citing the importance of proper music education in Title I designated schools across the state of Texas. 

“I wanted a dissertation with a purpose and I am on a mission with it,” Flournoy-Buford said. “This concerns our community.”

Flournoy-Buford, associated professor of music education at Wayland Baptist University, completed her doctorate at Texas Tech last March by defending her dissertation. Since then she has presented her research at a music education consortium at Texas Tech and at the music teachers’ faculty development for the San Antonio Independent School District. She has also spoken at the Texas Music Administrators Conference and in February she will conduct a clinic at the Texas Music Educators Association convention in Austin, the largest gathering of music teachers and faculty in the world.

Flournoy-Buford’s work focuses specifically on the teaching methods of music educators in Title I schools. Title I schools are those with a majority of students from low socio-economic backgrounds. According to her research, Flournoy-Buford said there is not a single school district in the state of Texas that doesn’t have at least one Title I school. And while Title I schools benefit from additional federal funds for education, those students are sorely lacking when it comes to education in arts.

For her research, Flournoy-Buford focused on four schools and their choral programs. She looked at a smaller-market school, focusing on Plainview High School and the program run by Walter Wright, a mid-city school in Lubbock and two large-market school programs in San Antonio. Her criteria for selecting these programs were that the directors must have been in the system for at least three years and the programs must have achieved either a Division I or Division II rating at UIL contest.

While her research was done on Title I schools, she pointed out that Plainview I.S.D. school board has elected not to accept the Title I designation for the high school. She used PHS, however, since it statistically fits within Title I guidelines and every other school in P.I.S.D. is designated a Title I school.

Flournoy-Buford’s consensus is that Title I school programs basically have to start from scratch with students who have very little knowledge and training in the field of music. These schools traditionally perform poorly at the yearly UIL music literacy competition. Flournoy-Buford wanted to focus on four programs that have had success in spite of their limited talent pools from which to draw. Her goal was to identify teaching techniques and methods that connected with students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

“Poverty changes (students’) lives and how we have to teach and educate them,” she said. “To them, choir is not the most important thing. In a Title I setting, you are starting from scratch.”

Flournoy-Buford pointed to problems within the education system as they pertain to the arts. There is so much focus on passing standardized tests that education in the arts is increasingly facing cuts across the board. Students are pulled out of their elective art, music and theatre classes for remediation in other subjects. In Plainview’s school system alone, music education in the elementary schools has been cut back to once a week for 30 minutes. A single teacher is assigned to two schools and some teachers aren’t even certified in music. According to Title I guidelines every school should have a certified music educator and if not, parents should be notified.

And while pulling students from music elective courses to increase their study time in basic core knowledge subjects helps them achieve the necessary grades to pass the mandatory tests, it leaves their education with a gaping hole.

“Education is not about being able to write an introduction, three paragraphs and a conclusion,” Flournoy-Buford said. “That’s how students have been taught to write for the TAKS test, but they don’t know how to think outside the box. Music teaches people to think outside the box because it uses all aspects of the brain.” 

As a professor of music education, Flournoy-Buford’s job is to teach college students how to teach music. To identify successful techniques among Title-I school programs, she interviewed and observed the four selected choral directors and found similarities in their approaches. She identified these similarities, most of which dealt with how the directors related to students on a personal level, making them feel comfortable and welcome in their music classes. She said throughout the interview process none of the directors ever labeled their students as “at-risk” or mentioned them in terms of low socio-economic status. Instead, they all basically said that “kids are kids.”

Flournoy-Buford said Wright even uses the tragic death of his daughter as a point through which to connect to students on a more personal and emotional level. And while his programs struggle with the same barriers as other Title I schools across the state, Wright has managed to build a successful program that has impressed other districts. She has used recordings of Wright’s choir at some of the seminars she has conducted.

“They are always amazed at the quality of the choir from a small, rural town in West Texas,” Flournoy-Buford said.

The type of success that Wright has enjoyed and worked so hard to promote at PHS can be duplicated in other schools and other districts. Flournoy-Buford said it is just a matter of educating the educators with the tools to reach students in Title I schools.

“At the college level nobody is getting much training, if any at all, about how to teach at a Title I school,” she said. “We have more at Wayland than do most college music programs.”

And Flournoy-Buford wants to push that education bar even higher by not only increasing the amount of success at teaching music in Title I schools, but also by forcing the hand of school districts to realize the importance of music education as a whole.

She has already done a pilot study for her next research project involving education among inmates. A volunteer at the Lubbock County Jail on Wednesday nights, Flournoy-Buford teaches inmates life-skills lessons including how to apply for a job and how to complete their education or pass a GED exam.

“I’ve done a pilot study on those guys in the jail right now,” she said. “Every single one of them is a drop out. Every single one of them relates losing his interest in education in middle school when he was pulled from his elective programs and had to study for the TAKS or TAAS test.”

Flournoy-Buford said over the years the impact of music on students’ lives has been dramatic. This semester, a first-generation student at Wayland sought her out after finding out that she taught at the jail. This student’s brother was in jail.

“She told me she was the only one in her family who wasn’t in jail or pregnant or had something happen to her,” she said. “She was upset. I told her to stay focused.”

As she was leaving, Flournoy-Buford heard the student utter the phrase that drives her passion … “Music saved my life,” she said.