Photography by Danny Fulgencio

When Caitlin Schmidt became director of the J.L. Long Middle School band eight years ago, the program had about 75 students. Today, that number is well over 350.

In just her second year teaching at Long, the energetic director launched a recruiting campaign to garner interest in the program. She sent students to play at elementary schools and passed out extra band apparel to the student body. But the greatest recruiting tool is creating a place where students feel they belong, she says.

“It’s mainly about building relationships with kids,” Schmidt says. “How can I get on their level and make them feel like I understand where they’re coming from? It’s about developing the kids into good humans, not this phenomenal band. If they’re good kids, the other will happen naturally.”

As the program grew, so did the needs. The band moved classrooms three times in four years to accommodate growing numbers. Not only are there not enough instruments, there aren’t enough high- quality instruments.

“Even if I could put an instrument in every kid’s hand, it doesn’t work half the time,” Schmidt says.

Schmidt discovered DonorsChoose, a website that allows teachers to request classroom items that can be purchased by community donors. Since posting her first project in 2013, donors have contributed more than $200,000 that has been used to buy instruments and send students on field trips.

Numerous teachers have benefited from her efforts. In February, Sonic helped fund DonorsChoose projects across the country by matching community donations. Schmidt had two projects at the time that didn’t get funded. A few weeks later, a Sonic representative contacted her, asking for more information about the projects.

The representative was so moved by the conversation that the company paid for all active projects at J.L. Long and contributed $100 gift cards to all live projects in Dallas ISD. Sonic also gifted Schmidt with $5,000 that she planned on using as travel scholarships to send kids to Disney World in May.

“If you didn’t like Sonic before, you should like them now,” Schmidt says.

The arts department trip to Disney World, in which students were slated to participate in workshops with performers, was canceled because of the coronavirus, and the scholarship money was earmarked for future trips.

When in-person learning abruptly ended in mid-March, Schmidt delivered instruments that had been left at the school over spring break to students’ front porches. She then posted listening and recording assignments for students to complete online. Students who completed their assignments each week were featured in an end-of-the-year video ensemble in lieu of the traditional band banquet.

Schmidt has planned for virtual and in- person learning this fall, but restrictions on tactile learning may make it difficult to teach students who have never held an instrument, she says.

“Collectively, teachers are really torn, and personally, I don’t think it’s safe for us to go back,” Schmidt says. “Most teachers want to hug our students, and that’s just not a reality. Even if we follow CDC guidelines, it’s not the school we were used to. I just hope people can be empathetic.”

The coronavirus has not only upended the school day, but also traditional fundraising methods. More students have needs because of the pandemic, and more organizations are competing for limited dollars. Schmidt may sell face masks or move the annual band fundraiser, Long City Limits, online to raise money for private lessons, which will be crucial if classes continue online. Solving those problems, however, is part of what appealed to Schmidt about public education.

“I love the challenge of public school band directing,” she says. “This is going to be hard and challenge me every day, and that sounds exciting.”

Schmidt, whose father is a musician, grew up around music and joined the band in sixth grade. Her middle school band director was so inspiring that she began to consider a career in music education. She had plenty of opportunities to lead as a section leader and drum major at Georgetown High School and continued her education at the University of North Texas.

Schmidt is the kind of teacher students email years later, thanking her for the life skills they learned in band. She’s the kind of teacher students see performing around town with her dad in their cover band, Acoustic Audiophile.

“This is my life. I’m here all the time, and I wouldn’t change it,” Schmidt says. “It’s exhausting, of course, all the extra hours to do the DonorsChoose projects and find funding. But whenever we have performances or get new instruments, 10 seconds of a kid smiling, that makes it all worth it.”

Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.