The byproducts of artistic ability are often thought to be traits like disorganization and flightiness.
But Myran Parker-Brass, both a talented performer and the arts director for the 58,000-student Boston public schools, bucks that creative stereotype.
The educators who sit down for a meeting with Parker-Brass will leave with a detailed action plan, to-do lists, and a follow-up meeting on the calendar. They’ll have been told kindly, yet firmly, what needs to be fixed and why.
And, despite the work that lies ahead for them, they’ll almost inevitably leave with a dose of the optimism Parker-Brass effuses.
“There’s nothing that we can’t solve, nothing we can’t work through,” says Parker-Brass, 63. “I love this. It’s who I am. I get very excited about helping teachers, but I get more excited about watching the kids.”
After 20 years of working as the education and community-programs director at the prestigious Boston Symphony Orchestra, Parker-Brass, a classically trained mezzo-soprano, joined the public school system in 2011, and in the more than four years since, has led an ambitious expansion of arts education that now provides a diverse array of dance, music, theater, and visual-arts instruction during the school day.
Carol R. Johnson, then the superintendent of the Boston school district, was trying to ramp up the city’s arts programs and persuaded Parker-Brass to make the move. Throughout her years at the orchestra, Parker-Brass had worked closely with the Boston schools, organizing teacher trainings, arranging for musicians to visit schools, and bringing students and their families to the theater for orchestral performances.
“We really wanted someone who not only shared our vision for access and equitable opportunities, but someone who could strengthen our connections to the arts community,” says Johnson, who retired from the Boston schools in 2013. “She had a willingness to step out of a role that certainly was much more comfortable … and decide that, while the job I have is great, the need for the work I could do in Boston public schools is even greater.”
Parker-Brass has a rare mix of experiences and aptitudes that could have led her life’s work in several directions. She spent her early career teaching in the public schools in her hometown of Chicago—and she still claims to be “a teacher at heart.” She’s an accomplished performer who has sung everything from opera to jazz to Negro spirituals throughout the United States, Europe, and South America.
For her, the teaching and performing go hand in hand. “As a performer, you engage the audience,” she says. “Teaching is engaging over the long haul—you’re using the same skills.”
Many of Parker-Brass’ colleagues say her varied background has shaped her into a trusted leader.
“She’s not just a figurehead or a banner carrier, she really does know what good teaching looks like,” says Allyssa Jones, who works under Parker-Brass as the Boston district’s program director for the performing arts. “It’s highly unusual for someone to be a good politician and a great instructional leader.”
“I respect Myran and her choices because I know she’s been there and done that,” says Anthony Trecek-King, the artistic director for the Boston Children’s Chorus, who has worked with Parker-Brass for nearly a decade. “When we’re singing—she’s done some of the repertoire we’re doing. It really carries weight and contributes to her reputation.”
The current gig, rife with budget and scheduling issues across 130 schools, is tough compared with her previous work outside the system, Parker-Brass admits. But it’s also incredibly gratifying.
“Is this the harder side of the aisle? Yes, much,” she says. “We’re growing our own, we’re making artistically literate citizens. But this is the better side of the aisle.”
Arts education has not always been a bright spot in Boston.
In 2009, only about 67 percent of K-8 students here were getting weekly in-school arts instruction, and just 23 percent of high school students were getting any arts instruction. The school system had about 156 full-time arts specialists.
Under Johnson’s leadership, the district teamed up with EdVestors, a nonprofit that raises private donations for urban school improvement, to help expand arts instruction during the school day and build up the system’s school programs and partnerships.
Now, 93 percent of K-8 students get arts instruction at least once a week, and 67 percent of high school students are getting some arts instruction, according to EdVestors. The number of full-time arts specialists has more than doubled.
While some of those changes started to take root before Parker-Brass took the helm, her colleagues say she’s propelled the expansion efforts in a number of ways.
The district has upped its investment in arts education from $17 million annually to $26 million since Parker-Brass came in—and much of that money has gone to teacher salaries.
“That reflects directly on Myran,” says Marinell Rousmaniere, the vice president for strategic initiatives at EdVestors.
She’s also played a pivotal role in increasing and deepening partnerships with nonprofits and higher education organizations across the city, such as the Berklee College of Music.
“I don’t think you [should] underestimate how difficult it is working with partners who are very busy doing lots of other things and to convince them to come into schools,” says Johnson.
Along with bringing in more partners, Parker-Brass has maintained a focus on high-quality instruction.
“Partners can be frustrated with being asked to provide more data on what they’re doing, to align better with our core curriculum, to function as part of our teams in buildings,” says Jones, the district’s performing-arts director. “But she’s concerned about the quality of what partners bring to the building.”
What’s more, she’s brought an emphasis on cultural sensitivity and diversity as well—instructional elements she’s held dear throughout her career. When Parker-Brass was still at the BSO, she helped Mary Driscoll, then a principal in the district, bring a variety of performers to her school—Spanish flamenco dancers, South African artists, a Haitian-American hip-hop violinist. “We had the whole world on our stage,” says Driscoll, who is now a principal leader for Boston schools. Diversity is “definitely a value of hers.”
Parker-Brass has also strengthened relationships within the district, many agree. A major part of her job is sitting down with principals and teachers to solve problems related to resources, facilities, scheduling, and curricula.
“She’s visible, she’s not in an office sending emails,” says Jones. “Both teachers and principals feel they can go to her directly.”
There are now about 320 arts teachers in the district, and Parker-Brass takes pride in knowing each one of them.
Recently, she had a tête-à-tête with a music teacher who was new to the district, and he laid out the laundry list of logistical issues he was struggling with: no classroom space of his own, a lack of materials, an overlapping schedule that required him to be in two places at once. Parker-Brass dove straight into solutions. She promised to look into getting him space in the auditorium, ensure he had an art cart on each floor with duplicate materials, and shave five minutes off each of his class periods.
“Some of my buildings still have only one arts teacher, so we [at the district level] become their team,” she explains.
Principals for the most part have come to see her as a support system as well, which is not always the relationship between building leaders and the district office.
“Many principals saw that arts could be a pathway [for academic success], but they had these barriers in the way,” says Rousmaniere of EdVestors. “So Myran shows up and helps lower those barriers. She says, ‘I can help you with the hiring process, I can help you evaluate teachers.’ ”
She does this by cultivating relationships with principals, and keeping a focus on their students. “She shows up,” says Driscoll, the principal leader. “[When I was a principal] we would have our student concerts and plays, and Myran would always be there in the back of the auditorium smiling proudly and taking it all in. She really sticks with you through the whole thing and is also there for the celebrating part.”
We’re growing our own. We’re making artistically literate citizens.
More and more over the past few years, Parker-Brass has seen school leaders become advocates for the arts themselves. And that’s especially important in Boston, where building leaders have a lot of discretion over how they spend their money.
“It’s not always me sitting in the budget discussions saying don’t cut that art position,” Parker-Brass says. “My principals and headmasters are now saying, ‘I need to add more arts teachers.’ They own it.”
The arts leader’s latest campaign is a grand one: She’d like to get state universities in Massachusetts to require students to take a high school arts course for admission. Currently, the state designates the arts as core content for K-12, but there isn’t funding or a mandate attached. She’s working with a state policy team at Americans for the Arts to push for this systemic change. “No one has slammed the door in our faces yet,” says Parker-Brass. “There are still many things that will have to be worked out, but we’re encouraged that people are listening.”
Notably, those who work for Parker-Brass are pretty confident in her persuasive abilities. “You know that if she’s decided something is going to happen, then it’s going to happen,” says Jones. “So you might as well get on the bus.”