Breaking the silence on BRSSD music education disparities

Music education funding disparities in Nesbit, Sandpiper, and Ralston middle schools are shaping the trajectory of students entering Carlmont High School’s music program.
Bruce Bennett, Valentino Bennett, and Lorenzo Bianchi play music in Carlmonts band room. The three are among the handful of Nesbit Middle School students that went on to join Carlmonts music program.
Bruce Bennett, Valentino Bennett, and Lorenzo Bianchi play music in Carlmont’s band room. The three are among the handful of Nesbit Middle School students that went on to join Carlmont’s music program.
Arianna Zhu
Unraveling the issue

Video by Isabella Zarzar

Since she was young, Emily Navasca has always been interested in playing a string instrument.

So when fourth grade came along and she could finally sign up to learn music, she excitedly took up the violin.

“I was grateful that the school I went to offered a music program,” Navasca said.

Navasca went to Nesbit Elementary, one of the seven Belmont-Redwood Shores School District (BRSSD) schools. However, although Nesbit offers a middle school education as well, upon reaching the sixth grade, Navasca ended up choosing to attend Ralston Middle School.

The crux of her decision lay in her love for the violin.

“Although I loved the teacher I had back in Nesbit, Ralston was a better choice since I wanted to continue to strengthen my violin skills and finally play with a full orchestra,” Navasca said.

It was a no-brainer for her. Her sister had also played an instrument at Ralston, and Navasca was inspired by the fun things she heard about the music program.

“My experience throughout my first concerts in a full orchestra was amazing. I’m so happy that I learned so many new things and was supported by a great teacher here. It’s important for kids to explore their interests and have the privilege to meet new people while sharing the same passions,” Navasca, now a sixth grader, said.

Reasons like what drove Navasca’s choice to attend Ralston over Nesbit are the focus of a growing BRSSD community of families, alumni, and staff.

In March of 2024, a BRSSD steering committee presented a community letter highlighting inequities in music programs across campuses and advocating for equitable music education, particularly at Nesbit and Sandpiper, to the district board.

They called for the use of new Proposition 28 funds to balance opportunities across schools. According to the California Department of Education, Proposition 28, or the Arts and Music in Schools initiative, requires California to support arts instruction in schools beginning this school year. 

Created by Arianna Zhu

In addition to state-allocated funding, the community letter focused on deeper diversity, equity, and inclusion issues.  

According to the letter, smaller middle schools in the district, such as Nesbit and Sandpiper, are neighborhood schools. Nesbit is also the only Title I, or lower socioeconomic school, in the district. The letter states that the school has the “greatest population of traditionally underrepresented minorities” who do not have equitable access to quality music instruction at Nesbit compared to other middle schools like Ralston. 

“My two sons went to Ralston. I know that Ralston has a great music program, and there’s a strong pipeline between Ralston and Carlmont. However, when my daughter went to Nesbit, we were concerned to see the disparity in the music programs. The smaller schools virtually don’t have a music program,” said Patricia Braunstein, a history teacher at Carlmont and a BRSSD parent who signed the community letter.

According to Patricia Braunstein, smaller schools such as Sandpiper have a one-day-a-week music program, while Ralston has four days of full music instruction and a dedicated class with field trips.

I know that Ralston has a great music program, and there’s a strong pipeline between Ralston and Carlmont. However, when my daughter went to Nesbit, we were concerned to see the disparity in the music programs. The smaller schools virtually don’t have a music program.

— Patricia Braunstein

“It’s not even a program. It’s a pullout system where the students must choose to leave class. Carlmont’s Performing Arts Center has an amazing program where students play in concerts. But there’s almost no way for Sandpiper or Nesbit kids to do that. Many haven’t played with anyone else. There’s such a stark contrast,” Patricia Braunstein said.

However, despite seeing a disparity between schools, Patricia Braunstein is most frustrated by the lack of observable interest in rectifying the situation.

“Throughout the year, I and other parents have asked the district about the programs and the differences concerning funding. But shockingly, there isn’t a funding problem. Proposition 28 funds are now being distributed. I was on the steering committee to help with that allocation, and there was a strong preference for this to be dedicated to music,” Patricia Braunstein said. 

Patricia Braunstein and the steering committee discussed music equity, and over a dozen speakers presented the community letter to the district in March. Before the meeting, in less than two days, the letter had gained the support of 150 community members.

“The district says there’s not a demand for music education at the smaller schools, but that’s because there’s no real program at the schools. As a result, at Carlmont, there’s only one or two kids from the smaller schools. It’s discouraging and intimidating for students who don’t have the training to join up with students who have been getting proper education. It’s an inequitable situation,” Patricia Braunstein said.

According to BRSSD Assistant Superintendent Ching-Pei Hu, all schools provide music instruction from credentialed teachers to third, fourth, and fifth graders. However, offerings start to differ among BRSSD middle schools. 

“Our comprehensive middle school, Ralston, offers band, choir, and orchestra at multiple levels. Nesbit students are offered instrumental class once a week by our band and strings teachers. Sandpiper students are also offered weekly music classes before the school day,” Hu said.

Elementary school music is funded entirely by School Force, BRSSD’s education foundation. According to Hu, with the addition of Proposition 28 funds, the district can provide a sustainable music program across all schools. 

“We believe in educating the whole child and providing a wide range of opportunities, including music. Through constant outreach and collaboration with our community, it is clear that music education is a high priority,” Hu said.

In lieu of a response, the principals of Nesbit and Sandpiper referred to Hu’s comment.

Our comprehensive middle school, Ralston, offers band, choir, and orchestra at multiple levels. Nesbit students are offered instrumental class once a week by our band and strings teachers. Sandpiper students are also offered weekly music classes before the school day.

— Ching-Pei Hu

Keya Arora is a BRSSD alum and was among the community members who signed the letter. She attended Sandpiper from third to fifth grade and completed her middle school years at Ralston. 

“I played the flute from fifth grade onwards. I had a really good experience with it. I felt like we got good individualized attention. I used to participate in music mentors and play at music festivals. It shaped my experience with music quite a lot,” Arora said.

Arora attributes her experience to Ralston’s dedication to quality student music education.

“The students who did the programs were very passionate about it, making the community welcoming and fun. I met a lot of my good friends there. There is definitely a link between how much students care about music and how much a school funds and provides equitable access to these opportunities,” Arora said.

Additionally, Arora recognizes a link between socioeconomic status and access to resources like a robust music education.

“If you are part of a less well-off community, if schools have inequitable implementation of resources, you’re going to go to a school that doesn’t have a great music, academic, or social program. That can adversely affect an important period when children are discovering what kind of person they want to be and where their interests lie,” Arora said.

But socioeconomic status can also be tied to racial and ethnic identity.

“It’s unfair. Having inequitable programs ultimately harms those who are part of marginalized communities more. Everybody should have equal access and opportunities with regard to extracurriculars, especially music, and everybody should have a fair shot at success and growth regardless of their identity,” Arora said.

While most schools focus on academic support, Arora stresses that access to good extracurricular programs is equally important. 

“That’s where people discover skills like their work ethic, passion, how to lead things, and creativity. Music encompasses all of those things,” Arora said.

Writing by Kara Kim

Navigating consequences
Diving into student accounts of the Nesbit music program
Bruce and Valentino Bennett

Bruce and Valentino Bennett are juniors in Carlmont’s band program. The twins attended both Nesbit Elementary and Nesbit Middle School.

“I was in the music program from fourth to fifth grade and throughout middle school. But when the pandemic happened, they shut down the program,” Valentino Bennett said. He has played the trombone since elementary school.

However, his first choice was to play the trumpet.

“They didn't have enough trumpets, so I played trombone. But as I played it more, it was cool because pretty much nobody else was. There weren't many students in the program, and there weren't enough instruments available. We were borrowing instruments from other schools in our district,” Valentino Bennett said.

According to Valentino Bennett, he is one of the only students from his elementary music program who kept to his instrument and continued to play at Carlmont.

“I felt alone in that I wanted to play music. No one else really wanted to. I have vivid memories of going into class with my trombone case, and everybody would be looking at me like, ‘What is that,’” Valentino Bennett said.

On the other hand, instead of switching paths due to a lack of available instruments, Bruce Bennett stuck to the trumpet. As a result, he could only join the Nesbit music program in seventh grade — but students had to use plastic instruments.

“The program itself was very underwhelming. There were two teachers and about eight or 10 students like myself, and it was during a class period, so they had to force us out of class to do the lesson. Honestly, it did not help me at all musically. But it wasn’t the teachers’ fault; it was very underfunded,” Bruce Bennett said.

The next year, quarantine hit, and Bruce Bennett found that he hadn’t learned much trumpet by the time freshman year of high school arrived.

“I had a really hard time reading the notes. I couldn't play notes as well as I thought I could. That affected me the most,” he said.

Bruce Bennett agrees with Patricia Braunstein that the main reason for the disparity in representation is rooted in the lower participation in Nesbit’s music programs.

“The interest in music is totally based on a student's background. There wasn’t encouragement at Nesbit. They just gave us a permission sheet for which instrument we wanted to play. There was no advertising for it. You just had to go,” Bruce Bennett said.

He believes implementing more equitable music programs at schools like Nesbit would benefit potential music students.  

“It’s not just because it's going to give them a future in music, but also to try it out and to figure out if it's their place. I didn't get that opportunity. It's a good thing I kept trying, but most kids didn't get in. They lost dreams that they could’ve had,” Bruce Bennett said.

Similarly, Valentino Bennett would have liked to see more kids in the Nesbit music program. 

“I was practicing with only one or two kids. It's good to teach kids one-on-one now and then, but it can get lonely,” Valentino Bennett said.

Both brothers hope to see an expanded music program at Nesbit in the future.

“I hope they give the music program enough funding to provide at least 10 instruments. That way, we’ll have a larger group of students from Nesbit coming to Carlmont. We have a good program here, and I hope that students from smaller schools know they can still participate with limited experience,” Bruce Bennett said.

Other methods of increasing interest and participation in middle school music programs include school concerts and informative posters advertising the programs.

“You need to show kids that they can do this and that it's an option. One time, my music teacher put together the band, and we performed for the entire fifth grade. We should definitely do more of that to bring awareness,” Valentino Bennett said.

Writing by Kara Kim

Yakira Braunstein

Surrounded by bright colors and letters, Yakira Braunstein sits in a kindergarten classroom at Nesbit Middle School as she tries to learn the saxophone.

Unlike music programs at many other Californian public middle schools, Yakira Braunstein receives musical instruction once a week through a 45-minute session in a space that is never quite dedicated to music.

In sixth and seventh grade, she practiced in the gym with her fellow band classmates, facing constant interruptions by students constantly shuffling in and out. At times, they even practiced outside due to excessive sound interference.

As a current eighth grader, she now plays alone: since the beginning of the school year, she has been the only remaining student enrolled in band.

“Getting into middle school, I quickly understood that there was no music program at my school, as there were only three other instruments. I had to adapt to this small environment, and I wasn’t really sure how to play,” Yakira Braunstein said.

The absence of students is not the only part of the core problem: there appears to be a lack of effort in providing proper training and instruction to Yakira Braunstein, despite her being the only student in the class. According to Yakira Braunstein, the music program took nearly four months to get started due to apparent difficulties with time management and acquiring rehearsal spaces.

During her weekly class, she typically begins with her main scales and then plays through her Essential Elements Band book — the same book that is given to fourth graders when they are first learning their instruments.

Even though Yakira Braunstein’s musical experience traces back four years with music instruction from school starting in fourth grade, she has struggled with developing musical foundations like rhythms and scales, a direct consequence of the lack of support she’s received.

“I never really received instruction in things like counting, timing, or any of the basics of music theory — even note lengths,” Yakira Braunstein said.

Without fully understanding how to play her instrument, Yakira Braunstein had found the class unenjoyable due to her embarrassment and anxiety about playing a different part when there were still students in her class in previous years, despite her love for music.

The inadequacy of the music program has impacted Yakira Braunstein beyond her skill differences: noticing the differences between her school’s music program and a larger one like Ralston’s, which her brothers had attended, has become a further source of shame in her school’s size and how they organize their music program.

“I’m definitely very aware of the differences between music programs like my own school’s and Ralston’s. My school is smaller, and we just developed a middle school program at Nesbit, while Ralston is a 6th to 8th-grade school with a much larger music program. I’ve seen many of their music performances, and it’s made me feel ashamed of my school size and how we deal with our music ‘class’,” Yakira Braunstein said.

According to Yakira Braunstein, her former classmates echoed her sentiments, finding the class uninteresting. Many either graduated or dropped the class in favor of physical education, the class that the music program replaced at her school.

“With the way it’s been structured and with no music advertisement, younger kids are not going to stay at Nesbit because there is little to no music instruction — they would rather go to Ralston if they want to play an instrument because there's nothing here,” Yakira Braunstein said.

Writing by Shiori Chen

Lorenzo Bianchi

Lorenzo Bianchi, a student within the Carlmont instrumental music program who formerly attended Nesbit Middle School and participated in the band program, wasn’t aware of the differences between his middle school’s music program and Ralston’s.

However, upon joining the concert band at Carlmont, Bianchi quickly realized that the once-a-week, small classes at Nesbit had limited his musical development.

Transitioning from playing eight-measure-long pieces in a three-person group to attempting two-page band arrangements was not a small change for Bianchi. The longer, more complex pieces not only required better technical skills but also more air support and breath endurance. 

According to Bianchi, it took him a full year to catch up to others in his class.

“I’d say that joining a band with skill differences could be discouraging for most people, but I was able to pick it up quickly,” Bianchi said.

Similar to Yakira Braunstein, Bianchi also struggled with developing fundamental technical skills, which he only recently learnt how to do while participating in Carlmont’s concert band.

“I didn't know how to articulate until this year. I didn't fully receive the same musical development that students from Ralston got. When I came to Carlmont, I could see that everyone else was so much better than me,” Bianchi said.

According to Bianchi, unlike at Nesbit, he now has access to things like performances, a full band, any type of music he wants to play, and good teachers who want to help and listen.

Bianchi also noted the difference in his former classmates’ approach to the class and the current attitude of his classmates in concert band.

“I think my teacher did the best he could; there were so few people, and they didn’t really want to play. It’s way different now at Carlmont. All my current classmates want to be there, and they try their best to play the songs as accurately as they can,” Bianchi said.

Writing by Shiori Chen

Alan Sarver, a board meeting participant and a former Sequoia Union High School District Trustee, talks about the disparities in music education among middle schools in the Belmont-Redwood Shores School District. Sarver has been advocating for music equity in the BRSSD middle schools since the creation of Sandpiper and Nesbit Middle School was first proposed. Learn more as Sarver delves into how middle schools, such as Ralston, Nesbit, and Sandpiper, continue to experience vastly different levels of music education quality, community response, and the implications these inequities have for students and the general community.

Podcast by Katherine Zhang

Finding the right notes

While Nesbit Middle School’s music program has suffered from underinvestment, subsequently affecting student interest and the quality of education, there are immediate and necessary improvements that can be made without funding complications. 

“For one, the curriculum definitely needs to be more structured, and we should play through different pieces and more sheet music instead of the same book. The space we play in needs to be improved. It’s not fun being in a kindergarten classroom with no air conditioning. It should at least be an environment that’s already in the middle school section,” Yakira Braunstein said.

Bianchi connects the root problem to the number of people participating in the band, a problem that perpetuates a cycle of disinterest and exacerbates how much focus the school puts into the music program.

“The thing that needs the most improvement is the amount of people that were in the band. Having classes once a week stunted my growth, and there were only two other people. When COVID happened for us in seventh grade, the online band was just me and Wei-on,” Bianchi said.

It’s not fun being in a kindergarten classroom with no air conditioning. It should at least be an environment that’s already in the middle school section.

— Yakira Braunstein

A school’s capability of fostering diverse activities and creative passion does not necessarily rely on how large its student body is. It comes down to the investment and student interest a school consciously fosters within a program.

Sandpiper Middle School is similar to Nesbit in that they are small: with about 60 students per grade, the schools share the challenge of limited student participation in their music programs. 

“Our school’s band is not like at Carlmont where there are many bands: it’s very flexible and anyone can join — you don’t have to try out. They haven’t performed anywhere as a group, so it’s more like a practice thing,” said Asha Bulfer, a sixth-grade student at Sandpiper Middle School.

The smaller music programs share some clear characteristics: unlike Ralston, which holds classes nearly every day, Nesbit’s and Sandpiper’s programs appear to be fairly informal.

“My friend is in the band, but they only practice on Tuesday mornings before school. It doesn’t sound very structured because they don’t do any performances, and she doesn’t practice outside of that,” said Radha Bulfer, Asha Bulfer’s twin sister who also attends the school. 

However, the twins are extremely optimistic about their school’s smaller learning environment.

According to Radha Bulfer, Sandpiper Middle School strives to emphasize creativity and passion for niche subjects through its Genius Hour school project program and intersession elective program in order to provide students with diverse experiences.

“In between our school trimesters, we have one week where it’s just full of electives. We get to learn different things: there was a class on watercolor painting, and there was a class on calligraphy, and another one on reader’s theater. It was really fun to explore those new things,” Radha Bulfer said. 

Created by Arianna Zhu

Nesbit Middle School is not the only institution that has been called on for change. As the next step in a student’s musical career, Carlmont’s instrumental music program is obligated to provide support for skill development and greater inclusion for students, regardless of their music background, to create an equitable community.

They have answered this call directly with a commitment to fostering a supportive environment for all musicians through their music mentoring program and scheduled summer kickoff plan.

“Music mentoring is a platform for students to see what it’s like to be a high school band or orchestra. At times, it’s better for a student to learn from another student and not from a teacher,” Bianchi said, also a former mentor in the program.

Music mentoring is a program where Carlmont instrumental music students volunteer their time to provide additional learning support to younger students learning their instruments.

Carlmont has also initiated a music kickoff program this year, set to begin the week before school starts and inviting all incoming musicians. The program aims to to build up the skills of incoming musicians and to familiarize them with the music program and community. 

The message seems to be that if you’re interested in music, you need to go across town to the only school that offers this, and it’s really disappointing.

— Patricia Braunstein

“My school only mentioned the kickoff program once when I was figuring out my class enrollment for next year, but I still signed up. I definitely feel nervous about trying to play with people I don’t really know, but I know that they’ll all be nice,” Yakira Braunstein said.

Carlmont’s efforts to promote inclusion in education can only go so far. The BRSSD school district must address the root causes of music inequity across all schools by ensuring equitable access to resources, instruction, and opportunities. 

“There’s just a lack of effort to integrate the kids at Sandpiper or Nesbit in any way. There’s no invitation for them to perform at the concerts to join them on field trips, which is a refusal for the district to consider. The message seems to be that if you’re interested in music, you need to go across town to the only school that offers this, and it’s really disappointing,” said Patricia Braunstein, the parent of Yakira Braunstein.

Writing by Shiori Chen

Arranged by Arianna Zhu

About the Contributors
Shiori Chen
Shiori Chen, Staff Writer
Shiori Chen (Class of 2026) is a sophomore and a writer in the media arts program. She is interested in writing about news and cultural affairs. She enjoys making charcoal drawings, playing the saxophone, and running her club at Carlmont, Art Showcase Club. You can find her always either eating good food or watching Studio Ghibli films.  
Kara Kim
Kara Kim, Highlander Editor
Kara Kim is a junior at Carlmont High School and excited to be a Highlander editor this year. She enjoys talking to new people and is very interested in sustainability. In her free time, you'll find her doodling or looking to try a new restaurant. Check out her profile here!
Isabella Zarzar
Isabella Zarzar, Highlander Editor
Isabella Zarzar is a junior at Carlmont High School and in her second year of journalism. She enjoys reporting on a variety of topics and is thrilled to be editing for the Highlander magazine this year. In her free time, Isabella enjoys reading, photography, soccer, and spending time with her friends and family.
Katherine A. Zhang
Katherine A. Zhang, Highlander Editor
Katherine A. Zhang, class of '25, is a junior at Carlmont High School and a staff writer for the Scot Scoop. She is looking forward to meeting new people and learning more about the community. Katherine enjoys reading and spending time with her friends when she has free time. Twitter: @Katherine00718
Arianna Zhu
Arianna Zhu, Scot Scoop Editor
Arianna Zhu, class of '25, is a junior at Carlmont High School and an editor for Scot Scoop. She is on the girls varsity tennis team and swim team at Carlmont. Outside of school, Arianna enjoys spending time with her friends and loves to read. Twitter: arianna_z_news

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