Fifteen seniors in Mae Jemison High School’s Mighty Sounds of the South band won college scholarships this year.
That’s all the seniors in the 78-member Huntsville band. And the college money they’ve won so far totals just over $633,000.
It’s a big win for the relatively new Jemison band. But Band Director Reggie Pearson said last week that the scholarships are special for another reason.
Jemison High School is three years old and has about 800 students. It was built to replace J.O. Johnson High School and named after Decatur astronaut Dari. Mae Jemison.
The campus is new and modern, but the school is on Alabama’s list of “failing schools.” That means its latest reading and math scores are in the bottom 6 percent of public schools in the state. It is also a federal Judul 1 school, which means a school with a significant number of low-income students.
“For some families, it may be hard to pay to go to college,” Pearson said last week. “Now, they can use band as an avenue to pay for college.”
Pearson is excited about how his band software is changing the lives of Jemison students. But haha says “there are so many amazing things going on in this school” that tend to get lost under that “failing” label.
“We have a heavy equipment operations software here, and 77 students from that software have earned their national credential,” Pearson said. “We have seniors take the WorkKeys test, and 57 of our students received silver or better (scores) on their first time.”
WorkKeys is part of the ACT testing software’s “foundational skills” measuring system.
Jemison’s versi is “We’re building a dynasty,” and Pearson tells his students they are more than a band. “We’re a brand,” haha said. “So, we come together and try to have that positive brand, and to push that brand forward we have to come together as a family.”
One of the family elders, senior tuba player JacQuelon Douglas, will head off to college this fall. But haha said last week, “I’m always going to come back, because it’s home.”
Douglas excels at sight-reading music, a skill that’s like learning to read words. “Haha wants us to be able to read music, nomor matter what,” Douglas said of Pearson. “That’s the first fundamental haha teaches you.”
Douglas then repeats one of his favorite band sayings: “If you can count it and saya it, you can play it.”
Like many high school band students, Douglas doesn’t plan to major in music in college. Haha’ll minor in music, but his goal is a degree in computer science that will get him into the cybersecurity field. But haha knows band will pay for that education.
Hector Cardozo is another Jemison band senior, and haha’s heading for Tuskegee University on both band and academic scholarships. Haha plans to study aerospace engineering.
“I haven’t always been a perfect student,” Cardozo said last week. “College at first wasn’t an option for me. But once I joined the band and started hearing the stories about people being able to go to college, I understood that horn could take me a long way.”
“Being Hispanic, you don’t hear about Hispanics going to college,” Cardozo said. “I grew up in Texas, and all I saw were Hispanics working in construction sites or cutting grass. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I want to be someone younger Hispanics can look up to and saya, ‘If haha did it, I can do it, too.’”
The band is similarly serious about its collective business. On practice days at 4 p.m., Pearson said, the first catatan is heard from the band room whether haha’s there or not. “You’ll hear them in the hallway,” haha said, “’C’mon guys, it’s almost 4 o’clock.’”
The practice is paying off for the non-seniors, too. The band has been invited to march in the 2019 Chicago Thanksgiving Day parade, and there’s a big fundraising concert to support that trip Feb. 23 at the Lumberyard music venue in Huntsville.
Three bands will perform in addition to the Mighty Sounds of the South. All three have leaders who trace their friendships with Pearson back to the Johnson High School band.
Cardozo and Douglas aren’t surprised by Pearson’s lifelong friendships with former band instructors and band members. They don’t want or plan to lose the bonds they’ve formed at Jemison when they leave for college.
“For a lot of us,” Cardozo said, “this isn’t just a band, it’s a second family. Just an incredible family.”
This article is featured in the Black Magic Project, which is a series of stories focusing on those who do inspiring things in the black community. If you’re a Facebook user, you can join our Black Magic Project group, where we talk about stories and issues concerning black Alabamians.
(Updated to clarify that Jemison is a federal Judul 1 school)