The Greiner choir performs “The Poet Sings.” Photo by Dickie Hill

The professional vocalists from Verdigris choral ensemble  weren’t sure what they would encounter at W.E. Greiner Exploratory Arts Academy when they signed on to give four weeks of private voice lessons last spring.

They expected to find talent, as Greiner is the only Dallas ISD fine arts magnet for sixth- seventh- and eighth-graders. They didn’t necessarily anticipate finding it “in spades,” as vocalist Erinn Sensinig notes, considering that most Greiner students “lack the financial resources that would allow for private vocal study and the standing private voice faculty that many other DFW choral programs benefit from having.”

“Once they realized other people were coming in and giving them attention, the sky was the limit with them,” says Verdigris artistic director Sam Brukhman.

Verdigris commissioned local artist Stephen Zhang to create this artwork for the Greiner Exploratory Arts Academy choir concert.

Brukhman knows the reputation of DISD’s nationally renowned arts magnet high school, Booker T. Washington, and he asked choir director Bethany Ring how many of her talented students would be enrolled there next fall.

Only one, Ring told him. Only two had even auditioned.

DISD began taking steps this fall to ensure that students being admitted to Booker T. actually live in the district, after the Advocate exposed the chronic problem of suburban students cheating their way in with false residency documents. The perpetual problem, though, has created residual effects for in-district students.

“Kids just know they’re not going to get in, so they don’t even try,” Brukhman says. “There is this sort of inequality that happens, and they know that.”

The fact is, there were more freshmen admitted to Booker T. this fall who live in the suburbs and claimed to live in Dallas than freshmen who live in DISD, qualified to attend Booker T. and were waitlisted. So even if DISD were successful in exiting all of the freshmen who cheated their way in, it wouldn’t have enough freshmen on the waitlist to take their spots.

One problem is the legacy of who is admitted into Booker T., something Brukhman quickly learned and longtime DISD visual arts teacher Kristen Jackson brought up in our May story. She eventually stopped encouraging her students to apply to the arts magnet high school because the vast majority were rejected outright — students Jackson says she knew to have talent and potential.

Another problem is the disparity between families who can afford to give their children private lessons and access to instruments or materials.

Sam Guzman is the band director at DISD’s Sidney Lanier Expressive Arts Vanguard in West Dallas, a neighborhood elementary school that becomes an arts magnet at fourth-grade. Guzman’s band students use instruments on loan from the school district, and when a trumpet or a clarinet breaks, the student might be without an instrument for weeks, even months at a time while it’s shipped off and being repaired.

This past spring, Guzman requested $728 from Raising Oak Cliff, a new group committed to supporting neighborhood families and schools, to purchase an instrument repair kit. The request was granted this fall, and Guzman told the parents who delivered the check to his fourth-grade band class that he could start tackling rooms full of broken instruments and get them back in the hands of students.

Raising Oak Cliff also gave $3,000 to Raul Quintanilla Sr. Middle School toward mirrors for its advanced dance classes. Dance teacher Ida Rocha’s program is growing so much that her advanced students are now practicing in a music room. The money will pay for mirrors that can be rolled in and out to hone the dancers’ technique.

One of Rocha’s dancers was accepted to Booker T. this fall. Only two of Quintanilla’s five applicants received a golden ticket; others were waitlisted or denied.

Verdigris’s four-week experience with Greiner students last spring, commissioned by the Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, led the choral ensemble to double down on its investment in the students this school year.

“We’ve hit a nerve here and we have to do something more,” Brukhman says, “so we’ve committed to a full year of outreach.”

Last spring’s efforts culminated in a performance, “The Poet Sings,” where Greiner students sang the lyrics of their classmates’ poetry, which was set to music by Verdigris soprano Meredith Tompkins. This year, the goal is to send an entire herd of students to their sister high school next fall.

“We have to make these students so good that Booker T. can’t say no, that they have no choice but to admit them for their merit,” Brukhman says.

‘The Poet Sings’

Photo by Dickie Hill

“How I Learned To Fly” was created in the spring of 2019 as a performance and mentoring collaboration between the students of W.E. Greiner Exploratory Arts Academy in Dallas and the professional singers in Verdigris Ensemble. In this partnership project, students learned about connections between poetry and music and were asked to compose lyrics on a theme of their choosing. Of these, the poems “How I Learned to Fly” by Bria Brown and excerpts of “Visionary” by Antoniya Davis were selected and set to music by Verdigris vocalist Meredith Tompkins. Themes of empathy, transformation, caring for others, natural beauty, and love echo the thoughts of many of the students who submitted poetry in this project.

“How I Learned to Fly,” by Bria Brown

An angel came down from heaven Because God saw my sorrow. She gave me her wings,
And I traveled to find tomorrow.

Along the way
I met a child.
Though he was poor, At me he smiled.

I then realized
That hardship was widespread. So instead of traveling,
I gave him the wings instead.

It turned out that
He wasn’t a small boy. It was the angel
Filled with joy.

She gave me a halo, We took to the sky, And that was how
I learned to fly.

“Visionary” ​[excerpts], by Antoniya Davis

Imagine a place
where you can be you not a soul can be judged you could start life anew.

Tranquility emphasizes bliss dreams of paradise
you can love you can live but nothing without sacrifice.

Go back to where serenity died
pick up your pieces
make the world we dreamed of
and fill that world with masterpieces.

Verdigris vocalist and composer of “How I Learned to Fly,” Meredith Tompkins, takes her bows along with student poets Antoniya Davis and Bria Brown, who wrote the lyrics. Photo by Dickie Hill.