It’s 7:30 in the morning at Skyline High and the halls are humming with activity. Kids are talking and slamming lockers. It’s loud. But one building’s playing a different tune.
When you walk into Mr. Tolliver’s music room, you’re transported to the world of the arts. It’s loud, it’s passionate, it’s musical….and it’s under-staffed
Band president and teacher’s assistant Kayla Whitche is familiar with Tolliver’s heavy course load. He teaches six music classes and is also an advisor of the Black Student Union.
“And he does it all,” says Whitche, because he has to do it all. At Skyline, many elective classes like the music and drama program are either underfunded or not funded at all.
“The only thing that is paid for, from any part of this school, is my salary,” Tolliver explains. “Everything else you see here is us-generated.”
Tolliver and his students raise money to keep the music program going by getting paid gigs. The revenue varies from each event – it can range from $500 dollars for a three-hour set, or a couple hundred from the event and donations from the party goers. Altogether, they raise about $5,000 per year. That money goes to competition fees, uniforms, and instrument repairs.
Not only does the program struggle with funding, it’s also understaffed
“I’m basically the first chair of the entire Orchestra when the Teacher’s not here,” says student Chelsea Burgess. I” conduct everybody, make sure everybody knows what to do.”
Burgess and Kayla Whitche say they’ve essentially become teachers. Burgess says Mr. Tolliver is a big reason why she’s stayed in the music program.
“Mr. Tolliver, he’s not gonna just leave you hangin’ if you don’t know something,” says Burgess. “He will take the time out of his day to give you private lesson and teach you.” For Tolliver, teaching is his true calling.
“I love the fact that I get to call myself a music educator,” he says. “I think if you teach music, really teach music – not notes, not just rhythms – but if you teach music, they will have an education.”
It can also allow him, as a teacher, to connect with his students on a deeper level. And that, at the end of the day, is what music is all about: “You’re giving what you have and at the same time you’re trying to see what your student has and helping them to tap into that so that they can teach themselves and hopefully equal you- and excel you as a performer, as a teacher, as an artist.”
Tolliver has been teaching for more than two decades – six years of them at Skyline. He’s decided this will be his last year. He’s moving to Claremont Middle School, where he hopes he can make his mark on an even younger generation.
Alyia Renee Yates is a student reporter at Mills College in Oakland. Mills reporters spent a semester getting to know the kids, teachers and culture of Skyline High School to bring us a portrait of the school