On the last day of school, Kay Thomas was all smiles.
The outgoing Bates Academy music teacher recorded videos with her eighth grade students, sharing what they love about their favorite instructor.
“You’re fun, energetic and you’ve just always been there for all of your students,” said Niara. “You got that nice, feisty attitude that makes your classes really fun. I really love you, Ms. Thomas.”
“This is my kid! C’mon, boo!” Thomas told her, enveloping the student in a hug.
Another student, Ghaige, talked about learning how to play the recorder, piano, clarinet and violin under Thomas’ instruction.
“Ms. Thomas has been the best teacher I’ve ever had,” said Ghaige, whose last name, along with Niara’s, is not being used since they are underage. “I’ve learned how to read so many different types of music…And Ms. Thomas has a heart where she’s going to teach you no matter what. You could be one of the worst kids in the building and she would still help you out. She’ll defend anybody for any reason when possible.”
“Except I won’t share my food,” Thomas said to the camera, laughing.
Behind the smiles and jokes, the school’s lone band, orchestra and piano teacher was masking her sadness and frustration. Thomas spent the last two months fighting for her job at Bates, a K-8 school on Detroit’s northwest side.
Thomas said Bates Principal David Bailey notified her April 12 that she would be leaving Bates at the end of the school year and transferring to another school in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Thomas believes she’s being reassigned over too many absences throughout the year, absences the teacher said are protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act, a federal law that affords employees unpaid leave for specified family and medical reasons. Thomas said she takes FMLA time each year to care for her 10-year-old son with disabilities, but needed to take a six-week leave for herself earlier this year due to health reasons.
“Why would you take away a program that’s highly successful?” Thomas said. “We’re one of the premier schools.”
Meanwhile, DPSCD said Thomas is being transferred because Bates will have three fewer teaching positions than last year due to districtwide enrollment losses and the end of COVID relief funding, Assistant Superintendent of Communications Chrystal Wilson told BridgeDetroit. Thomas doesn’t know yet which school she will be going to.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told BridgeDetroit in an interview last month that schools have the choice to fund either an art or a music teacher. In the past, Bates had two music teachers and an art teacher. For the upcoming school year, there will be two art teachers and no music teachers, leaving Bates without a music program.
“So principal Bailey, in looking at the school-based budget and the master schedule and the programming, decided to fund an additional art or music teacher, but not the third. That was his decision and we support that. As a district, we’re not in a position to fund a music and art program at every school, so anything in addition to art or music is really a school-based function.”
Thomas noted that Bailey canceled multiple concerts and performances, including Bates’ participation in An Evening of Fine Arts, where more than 200 DPSCD middle and high school students perform at the Fox Theatre.
Bailey referred all questions regarding Thomas’ reassignment and the school’s music program to Wilson. She did not answer other questions about Thomas’ transfer and whether her absences were a factor.
Rosilyn Stearnes-Brown, a former music accompanist for DPSCD, said Thomas works well with her students and prepares them for high schools with top music programs like Renaissance and Cass Tech and the Detroit School of Arts. While Stearnes-Brown is retired, she has assisted Thomas with orchestra and band classes for about 10 years.
“There aren’t many middle schools that have music programs and the ones that do have music programs can’t meet the standards that her program is meeting,” she said. “She really knows what she’s doing, she can relate to the children and they like playing in her classroom.”
Building a successful music program
Thomas is a long-serving teacher for DPSCD, working in the district for 22 years, including 15 years at Bates. The school’s music program became a popular elective for students, she said. At one point, Thomas was working with almost 200 children.
Thomas also prepares middle school students for competitions. Her students also earned state recognition, receiving top ratings earlier this year at the band and orchestra festival for the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association.
Some of Thomas’ former students have become professional musicians, like violinist Candice “Pretty Stringz” Smith. Others played music in high school such as Christie Jackson, a Harvard graduate who is pursuing her master’s degree at the University of California, and Joshua Cooper, a P.h.D student at the University of Michigan.
But in the past couple years, things started to change. Thomas said Bailey stopped promoting the music program, which resulted in fewer students signing up for classes. For the 2022-23 school year, Thomas only had about 50 students in grades 6-8. She then began focusing on the elementary students by teaching them piano to prepare them for middle school band.
Another change this year was combining band, orchestra and piano into one class, which only gave Thomas 15 minutes to teach each section in a 50 minute class.
After Thomas was notified that she would be transferred to another school, Bailey canceled 18 concerts and events involving the music program for the rest of the school year. Among the shows to be canceled, Thomas said, was the band’s scheduled performance at the eighth grade graduation this month.
“That did a disservice to the students, the parents and myself,” she said.
Since learning of her transfer, Thomas said she’s tried everything she can think of to keep her job at Bates. She filed a grievance with the Detroit Federation of Teachers and reached out to the civil rights organization By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) for help. She hasn’t received any updates from the union, but BAMN held a rally outside Bates last month and advocated for Thomas at a recent school board meeting.
Kate Stenvig, a BAMN organizer, said the organization is supporting Thomas because arts education is usually one of the first departments affected when DPSCD makes budget cuts. She said she saw that when the district was under emergency management from 2009-2016, with several schools not having any arts programming.
“Ms. Thomas’ program is really extraordinary,” she said. “It’s just a great example of what public education should be and the opportunities that students should have to develop their creativity. We’ve been in a big fight in Detroit to defend those programs.”
Parent LaWanda Dickens also praised Thomas and her program. Herdaughters Jasmine and Natalie Dickens took private piano and violin lessons with Thomas back in 2008 when they were eight and five years old. They later attended Bates and participated in the music program.
LaWanda, who now lives in Mississippi, said what she appreciated most about Thomas’ teaching was her knowledge transfer approach.
“It was more than just my girls sitting within four walls,” she said. “She actually taught them to apply what she was teaching them in their lives outside of class. So, she motivated them to want to practice and play their instruments even when she wasn’t around.”
While Jasmine eventually lost interest in playing music, Natalie, now 20, still plays the piano or violin, LaWanda said.
LaWanda hopes that Thomas can continue to teach music at Bates, saying she’s an innovative thinker and a mentor for students.
“She gets personally involved and I think that’s important at the middle school level,” she said. “As a teacher myself, I think that middle school is the most susceptible years of your life. The thing about her is, she makes them feel comfortable enough to come in and they can be informal with her; they can laugh, they can joke but at the same time, she commands respect so they know when to get serious and cut the joking out. I’ve never seen her having to yell at them…she’s just an exceptional teacher. It’s like a natural gift to her. Everybody can’t do that.”
Thomas also received support from the school community, with parents and students creating a petition to keep her at Bates. Thomas said the petition received about 400 signatures.
The educator said that even though she’s not sure which school she will be teaching in next year, she’ll make sure it’s one of the premier schools for music. Thomas said despite the situation, she’ll stay in the district due to her seniority and her dedication to kids in the city.
“My students know no matter what, I got them,” she said.