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Fairfax music program’s loss Bev Hills’ gain
By Jeffrey Prang, West Hollywood, California
Ray Vizcarra being honored by the LA City Council for his accomplishments at Fairfax High School. Photo courtesy Council member Paul Koretz's office.
Public education has endured trying times in recent decades.
More recently, the grim economy has seen school revenues plummet, compelling public school districts to cut programs and personnel and unraveling many of the successful improvements that were implemented before the economic downturn.
Fairfax High School band when they were a LAUSD powerhouse in the 1980s.
While public schools are the innocent victims of the economic crisis, the current situation has revealed problems in the system that are the responsibility of the school district; and the music programs (and students) at Fairfax High School and Laurel Span School may end up as the most recent casualties through the loss of a beloved teacher.
Ray Vizcarra grew up in South LA, the eighth of ten children raised by a single, immigrant mother.
He was the first in his family to go to college, graduating from Fresno State University as a music education major with a secondary education teaching certificate.
After completing his teaching certification, Ray was offered a position with LA Unified School District at Fairfax High School in 2006, which planned to restore a music program that had been mothballed in 1988.
Ray dove into his job with a whirlwind of energy, working countless hours, evenings and weekends. For the first time in nearly 20 years, students, faculty and staff heard the sound of music on campus.
In the fall of 2006, Ray had assembled a group of about 60 students eager to be band and color guard students. He assembled the students into a makeshift band camp in August and began an intense, three-week pre-season training.
In September 2006, the Fairfax Marching Lions took the field at the first football game of the season. They played the national anthem and the school fight song (to the tune of On Wisconsin), and no one would have guessed that they hadn’t been playing for years.
During this first season, students stood at practice as he didn’t have enough chairs for everyone to sit.
Ray Vizcarra with his drum major at the 2010 championships.
Ray planned to not only have a marching band on the field by the first game, but he intended to have his band to compete that fall with the finest LAUSD had to offer as though his program had existed for years. His expectation was that they would perform as well as any high school band in the nation. He worked 12-16 hours per day, including weekends, often coming home after midnight.They had about three weeks to get ready for the first football game, however, over 80% of the students had never played an instrument before, and the rest has little formal training.
The student musicians didn’t have uniforms, as the 40 year old uniforms from the old program were unusable after so many years. They wore black pants and red tee shirts (courtesy of Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky).
Ray intended to have his band compete in regional competitions immediately, but he needed uniforms for the students. He learned that Cerritos High School had just purchased new uniforms and was willing to sell him their old ones for $10 each.
The Fairfax Band color guard also won competitions.
Having no budget, and as became his practice in many issues of finance, he used his own funds to buy the uniforms. The uniforms were nice: red, black, and white, but not quite the Fairfax school colors of gold and scarlet. The “CHS” on the collar gave away the fact that the uniforms were hand-me-downs.
However, the kids wore them proudly and Ray Vizcarra, or Mr. “V” as the students now affectionately referred to him, entered the band into a handful of regional competitions.
One might think the director would temper his activities during the program’s maiden year, but Mr. V drove the students hard, taking them to a new competition almost every week. As usual, he paid for most costs from his own pocket.
While the members of the band were mere novices, Ray treated them as though they were veteran performers, placing them into competitive fields against much more experienced bands. Amazingly, they outperformed many schools with much more established programs, winning and placing highly in several of the competitions Fairfax entered.
During the course of the fall, a number of wonderful things occurred. One was the impromptu formation of a band parents group. They traveled with the band to competitions, helping move equipment, loading buses, and preparing meals for the students.
Additionally, the students were featured in documentary about high school marching bands entitled, “From the 50 Yard Line,” in which Fairfax’s nascent program was contrasted with a large, well-funded suburban school from Ohio. They were also featured in a music video for the group “OK GO.”
The Fairfax Marching Lions at one of their competitions.
Music was back at Fairfax in a big way. In the fall of 2007, Fairfax began its second season. The band had developed a strong comradery and its own distinct culture.
Finding humor in their hand-me-down uniforms, the students would uniformly slap their right hand over the CHS on their collar when shouting “Go Fairfax!” Some of the parents complained about the hand-me-downs, and Mr. V lamented that students from other schools made fun of the Fairfax students and their used uniforms.
But whatever momentary slights they endured, Fairfax dominated the marching band field in 2007. The band and color guard won a handful of regional competitions, with the band, drum line and color guard each getting individual and cumulative honors. In November, Fairfax won 2nd Place in the California State Band Championship.
By December, just fifteen months since the nascent musical ensemble first gathered with barely a student knowing how to play an instrument, the Fairfax High School marching Lions dominated the LAUSD Citywide Band and Drill Championship, placing first and defeating veteran bands with well-established programs and long records of success.
In 2008 and 2009, the band and orchestra continued to soar, winning more and more competitions, which now included the orchestra as well. Fairfax placed 2nd in the LAUSD Championship both years, but the school had established its reputation as among the most successful music programs in the District.
The Fairfax Marching Lions, a LAUSD powerhouse in the new millennium.
In 2010, the band and color guard again won a score of trophies and culminated the season with a second LAUSD Band and Drill Championship 1st place award.
In 2010 Ray took on an additional assignment as band director at the new Laurel Span School, an elementary school that was converted into a K-8 program. In essence, Ray was created his own feeder program for Fairfax.
The program thrived over the next two school years with nearly 200 students and earning awards in regional competitions. He never stopped working for and with the students, and now at two schools. Mr. V also noted proudly that 95% of his graduating seniors went on to college.
By 2012, Mr. V has come to expect the annual Reduction in Force (RIF) notice, warning him of his likely layoff. He was released in June 2011, but thanks to our local school board member (and staunch supporter of the program), his job was restored for the 2011/12 school year.
However, Ray was laid off again on June 30, 2012. The ever worsening fiscal challenges at LAUSD made his restoration uncertain, although Board member Steve Zimmer again promised to do all he could to help.
Out of work and collecting unemployment, not knowing if he would be recalled for 2012/13, he applied for an opening at the Beverly Hills Unified School District (BHUSD).
Fairfax Band in their second hand uniforms.
Beverly Hills immediately recognized the talent and passion for education in this young teacher and offered him a position. Having endured enough stress from the annual uncertainty over job security, Ray accepted the job at BHUSD one day before LAUSD called to inform him that they had secured his position for another school year.
However, the LA Unified personnel representative told him there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t be laid off again next year. Additionally, more layoffs are imminent should the Governor’s tax proposal fail to pass this November.
Rules governing layoffs at LAUSD do not take into consideration individual teachers and their abilities and accomplishments.
It’s based solely on seniority. Thus energetic and talented teachers like Ray Vizcarra may not enjoy any sense of job security until they have worked for 10 years or more, especially an arts teacher.
The rules that govern LAUSD layoffs simply do not place any weight on teachers who are changing the lives of students and who contribute so significantly to success of public schools.
Ray Vizcarra did change the lives of countless students for the better during his 6 years at LAUSD.
Leaving the program he built from scratch and the students he adores is heartbreakingly painful. But being asked to place ones career and financial stability at risk every twelve months is simply unfair and untenable.
LAUSD desperately needs more teachers like Ray Vizcarra, but it cannot hope to retain such teachers if it is not willing or able to reconsider its policies that sacrifice them when times get tough.
Editor: Mr. Prang is not only Mr. Vizcarra's husband, but also serves on the West Hollywood City Council. That said, WeHo News has thoroughly vetted this article and stands by every word.