Growing up in East New York, Edwin Figueroa saw a few of his friends get killed and join gangs, and many more drop out before getting a degree.
Figueroa, 20, credits the 10 years he spent with Soul Tigers Marching Band while at J.H.S. 292 with giving him the drive to leave Brooklyn for Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, and the motivation to work his way up from a ramp technician at JFK Airport to controlling which gates to send arriving planes to.
On Wednesday, Figeroa joined members of the Soul Tigers Marching Band, playing his bass drum on Vermont Street across from the school to protest the band being locked out of their practice room.
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The band members, who range from first graders through high schoolers, played loud enough to set off car alarms on the street. Many were wearing -shirts that read “Black Lives Matter.”
“They changed the locks so we can’t get in the band room,” said Jatear Taylor, 16, is a majorette with two younger sisters in the band program. “Even with all this going on we still perform for her,” Taylor said of School Principal Evelyn Maxfield, whom the band blames for the lockout.
“We don’t hold grudges, but we feel like why is she trying to take the band away from us,” asked Taylor. “When every kid had nowhere to turn to, we turned to band.”
Band Director Kenyatte Hughes, who revived the program in 2003 after serving in the Marines, said the school changed the locks to the practice room a few months ago, causing the 60 students in the program to miss performances and cutting their six-day-a-week practice schedule to four days.
“We’re saying those two days are way too detrimental to the kids, cause there’s way too much violence, and guns, and we want to prevent those kids from becoming statistics,” Hughes said. “Soul Tigers is a place for kids to experience new things.”
Hughes, who teaches music as an independent contractor at the school, says he’s not clear on why the band is being locked out. He said administrators said there are policy issues with the band using the space.
Parents at the rally said the strict schedule, expectation for band students to keep their grades up, and international travel gigs open their children to opportunities their tough neighborhood doesn’t provide.
“My kids have been to places I would never be able to take them, if it wasn’t for Soul Tigers,” said parent Tyesha Graham.
The NYC Department of Education said in a statement that Maxfield wants groups to pay a fee to use the space.
Yuridia Pena of the Department of Education said community organizations including Soul Tigers are required to pay fees for custodial and security if they operate after school hours.
Pena said the band has free access Wednesday through Saturday, and the department is working with Hughes to “accommodate” their program.