By Arlo Tinsman-Kongshaug, Editorial Intern
The San Pedro High School band has seen more success this past year than it has in recent memory. In December, the San Pedro High School’s Golden Pirate Regiment swept first place honors at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s All City Marching Band and Drill Team championship.
The month before, at the Southern California School Band and field Ban 1A Championships, San Pedro High won every award but music effect.
This past April, the Pirates won first place out of 92 schools in the Winter Guard Association in Southern California Scholastic AAA competition. The Pirates’ string of successes during the 2015-16 school year were not a fluke.
They coincided with the hiring of Darnella Davidson, who arrived in San Pedro from the Mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles, where she was a director of the heralded Los Angeles High School band program—winner of 25 consecutive Los Angeles Unified School District Band and Drill Team City Championships titles and three Southern California School Band and Orchestra Association gold medals.
In addition to those awards, Davidson’s bands at Los Angeles High won three Southern California School Band and Orchestra Association 1A Division Field Band Championships, and three Southern California Drumline Division III Championships. Her concert bands have earned “superior” ratings for performance and sight-reading in SCSBOA and LAUSD Music Festivals.
In 2014, 30 members of her Los Angeles High marching band played with Grammy winning recording artist, Pharrell, during a screening and panel discussion at the Grammy Showcase.
With her credentials, Davidson could have gone anywhere, but because of her connection to its late band director, Paul Purdy, she came to San Pedro High.
The world of high school band directors at the district level is small—so small that many, if not most of them, are on friendly yet competitive terms. Davidson and Purdy had known each other for about 20 years.
Davidson was one of the few who knew of Purdy’s plans to retire before it became public knowledge. They talked about what might happen next.
“I said, ‘Well, when you retire let me know because I might be interested in coming over and running the band program,’” Davidson recounted.
When Purdy retired after the 2014-15 school, Davidson said, “‘OK, let me check it out.’ After some due diligence, she saw it was a good fit and interviewed for the job.
[three_fourth_last][portfolio_slideshow][/three_fourth_last]Purdy died shortly after he retired. The school auditorium was renamed, “The Paul Fletcher Purdy Memorial Auditorium.”
Davidson said that one of the features that attracted her to San Pedro was the band program at Dana Middle School—a program that has traditionally outshined its high school neighbor.
“I liked the fact that there was a good feeder program,” she said. “Dana Middle School was a big draw for me to come over here.”
Despite Los Angeles High’s better-equipped band program and its success during her 28 years as its director, Davidson said she had no misgivings about leaving.
“I felt it was time for something new,” she said. “A friend of mine once told me ‘Make sure you have no regrets.’ I had to think about it long and hard and I have no regrets. It was time to move on.”
Davidson started work in August 2015, the beginning of the 2015-16 school year.
“There was so much talent and potential in these kids,” Davidson said. “The kids just needed discipline and confidence to shine. The talent was here, the talent was clearly here and that was what was so exciting about coming over here.”
Davidson noted that turning the program around was not easy.
“Many of the kids didn’t have a lot of confidence in themselves, so I had to build that up,” Davidson said.
Discipline was the next challenge, to rein in all the youthful energy and direct it into a positive direction.
Davidson’s said her goal is to inspire children to believe they have unlimited potential.
“With that mindset it encourages me to keep working,” she said.
Davidson has also been working closely with Dana Middle School band director and Purdy protégé, Efrain Nava.
“We talk every day about the program and just things in general and we get along very well,” Davidson said. “He does such a great job with the Dana band and our kids primarily come from Dana so it makes sense for us to work closely.”
Davidson was a product of the Los Angeles Unified School District. In her teens, she was a drum major leading the University High School band. She was among 250 students chosen for the Los Angeles All-City Band, which annually represents LAUSD in the Tournament of Roses Parade.
Davidson was also a drum major at Cal State Northridge, earning a degree in music, then embarking on a career of teaching and directing school bands.
Davidson believes she still has much more to accomplish with the San Pedro High School band. She hopes to build a drum line, but needs more students to get involved in percussion first.
Declining enrollment has significantly impacted San Pedro High. According to numbers by the California Department of Education the school’s enrollment has dropped by 30 percent from its high 2004 high to 3,576 in the 2015-16 school year.
The resulting loss of funding has forced the school to layoff five teachers this year. Board members at a recent School Based Management meeting feared there could be more layoffs in the future.
The enrollment decline has coincided with the rise of local charter schools such as Port of Los Angeles and Alice M. Baxter High schools.
Davidson agrees that competition from local charter schools has had an impact on San Pedro High.
“I think it has had an effect because when we’re trying to recruit kids, we seem to be trying to recruit the ones that tend to be going over to the charter schools,” she said.
Davidson remains excited about the possibilities at San Pedro High School.
“There are so many great programs here. You can be anything and everything you ever wanted to be here at San Pedro High,” she said.
“And yet, you go to a charter and they don’t have any music program; they’re limited as far as sports are concerned and their academic offerings are no better than the ones here at San Pedro. So, I think that if we can just contact parents and change their mindsets it would be great.”
Looking ahead, Davidson said the work of building up band program is still a work in progress.
“It would be great to take the band on a trip out of state,” she said. “That would be an ultimate goal for me. But that’s going to take time and money.”