Kendrick Lamar and Dr. Dre's High School Has One of Best Music Programs in the Country

Some say the pressure to survive Compton is so great that it creates diamonds. If that's true, then Centennial High School’s music program, under the leadership of Manuel Castaneda, is one of its ice dispensers.

When Castaneda became music director at Centennial in 2012, marching band was the main focus. Only 25 students participated. Before Centennial, he was teaching band and string orchestra at Ralph J. Bunche Middle School, also in Compton. In a mere five years at Bunche, he established a respected music program, but when his students graduated to Centennial, “several who experienced academic and musical success were failing classes and or quitting band all together,” Castaneda recalls. “They weren’t having the success that I wanted for them.”

Known as the alma mater of Dr. Dre, DJ Quik and Kendrick Lamar, Centennial is now helping students fortify their futures through music. Ninety-five percent of participants in the music program, according to Castaneda, go on to four-year colleges on full or partial scholarships. "[It's the] accomplishment that I am most proud of," he says.

The city that birthed gangsta rap has changed demographically; though once predominantly African-American, it is now nearly two-thirds Latino, according to the 2010 U.S. census. But the trauma of violence has remained constant. The Los Angeles Timeshomicide report lists 28 murders in Compton, a city of just fewer than 100,000 residents, in the last 12 months.

The marching band rehearses at Centennial High School.
The marching band rehearses at Centennial High School.
Centennial High School band staff

At Centennial, some students have such threatening or unstable home lives that they don’t want to go home after school. So Castaneda spends about 20 hours a week working with his students outside of classroom hours. “Me living about a mile and a half away, I can stay at the school. Some of my colleagues … wish to stay, but they may have an hour drive home,” Castaneda laments.

Born and raised in Compton, Castaneda picked up the trumpet in the fifth grade. He played in Bunche’s music program and went on to join the marching band at Centennial. The school’s music director at the time, John Roberts, was a retired singer-songwriter, orchestrator and conductor, who had worked with Barry White and scored his own minor hit in 1967 with “Sockin’ 1-2-3-4.” Roberts taught with passion, putting the band through rigorous practice. Winning competitions was expected. Soon Castaneda was playing at levels above what he thought possible. It was a revelation, and propelled him into his own career in music education.

“One day, I jokingly told my band leader that I would come back and be band director here,” he says. After he began teaching at Bunche, he learned that Centennial’s then–music director preferred teaching middle school, “so we swapped,” Castaneda explains. “It was so surreal to sit in the chair that my band director used to sit [in].”

In Castaneda's first two months as music director, the marching band won second place in the drum-off competition at the annual Battle of the High School Marching Bands at the Home Depot Center (now StubHub Center) in Carson, beating out other bands from around the country, as well as dealing with intense competition from rival high schools in Inglewood, Long Beach and Carson. It solidified the students’ confidence, giving Castaneda the momentum to motivate them further. “My first year was about building a music conservatory–type culture of higher standards.”

Kendrick Lamar and Dr. Dre's High School Has One of Best Music Programs in the Country (3)
Centennial High School band staff

When Centennial’s marching band was featured on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, it seemed as if the music program had arrived. But Castaneda wanted to diversify its curriculum. The way some students related to music wasn’t conducive to marching band; they weren’t “genuinely interested in joining,” Castaneda recalls. When he took over, Centennial only offered band classes, music history and general music courses. In the marching band’s off-season, Castaneda added string orchestra, jazz band, concert band and advanced-placement music theory.

Today, the marching band has 35 to 50 members, not including the drill team, cheerleaders, majorettes and dance team. The string orchestra is anticipating an additional 15 to 20 members for the 2017-2018 school term. Castaneda's students haven't stopped rocking competitions, placing first, occasionally taking second. This year the marching band won first in the Los Angeles Kingdom Day Parade. Artist Alison O'Daniel collaborated with them to perform at Art Los Angeles Contemporary’s annual opening, which was featured in L.A. Weekly. The jazz band took second at the San Francisco Heritage Festival, after placing first last year.

Music education isn't cheap, and while Compton’s school board funds most of Centennial’s art initiatives, nonprofits and donors supplement their remaining needs. In 2013, Kendrick Lamar donated $50,000 to the music department. For years, the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, inspired by the movie, has donated instruments. Other organizations including Turnaround Arts, Music Unites, L.A. County Arts for All and VH1 Save the Music Foundation provide additional funding and collaborate with Compton schools to teach critical thinking through arts education.

“The goal of all of these programs is to teach children to read, play and appreciate music," secondary curriculum and instruction administrator Dr. Shaunte Knox said via a written statement, in response to questions about Centennial High's music program. "We have seen the positive impact of music in education, so we plan to continue to feed our students’ educational and musical appetites through these programs.”

Kendrick Lamar and Dr. Dre's High School Has One of Best Music Programs in the Country (4)
Centennial High School band staff

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The students themselves vouch for the music program's positive effects. Senior Randy Pozas was the marching band’s captain for the past three years, a role he says taught him leadership skills. In the off-season, he played bass guitar for the jazz band. This fall he'll begin pursuing a music degree at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Castaneda, he says, “inspired me ... you wanted his approval. For him it’s about hard work. That’s what he always tells us. If you work hard, you achieve a lot and get a lot in return.”

Marching band student Julian Antonio says that when he was a freshman at Centennial, “I was lost and didn’t know what to do with my time.” His young uncle was a part of the marching band and encouraged him to join. “Mr. C would see me after school and be like, ‘Come through.’ ” After joining the drum line, Antonio went on to become part of the jazz band and orchestra. In 2016, he was featured playing percussion in Kendrick Lamar’s "Compton: Witness Greatness" video, produced for the Grammy Awards.

“The music kind of honed my interest. It overlapped into my classes and helped me get straight in school,” Antonio says. As the oldest of three and a first-generation Mexican-American, he is the first in his family to go to college. He attends the University of California, San Diego, majoring in mathematics and economics.

He’s thinking about becoming a teacher.


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