Band takes first international trip in school history

Spring Break came early for one DeKalb County School District (DCSD) high school, bringing an opportunity for cultural exchange, life experience and the first trip abroad in its history.

Towers High School’s Titans Band traveled to London, England and Paris, France for a week filled with collaboration and music education. From March 28 until April 4, the band, parents, the band director and school principal visited cultural landmarks and worked with brass band music masters.

The trip to Europe marks Towers’ first trip abroad since its founding in 1966.

“The trip was phenomenal—it was explosive, it was beyond our wildest dreams,” said Towers band director Shawan Baptiste. “From the day we hit the ground running until we returned, it was great.”

The Titans Band was able to visit such cultural landmarks as Westminster Abbey, English Parliament and Trafalgar Square during their time in London. The travelers were also able, but not required, to observe the Easter celebration at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a historical landmark originally founded in the year 604.

In Paris, the group visited such landmarks as The Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. Students saw The Mona Lisa and other world-famous artwork, and braved the trek to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

“The kids actually climbed all of the Eiffel Tower stairs all the way to the top,” Baptiste said. “And why not? We had gone that far, why not see the peak of Paris?”

For Baptiste, a highlight of the trip was when band members took part in a master class with experts from the London Regional Brass Band, including an internationally-renowned conductor. The class included one-on-one lessons, an advanced music rehearsal and a performance of New Orleans-inspired jazz music.

“It was a very true cultural exchange,” Baptiste said. “This was a pivotal point of why we went on the trip in the first place: to conduct a music exchange and be taught by professionals.”

Baptiste also credits Dunwoody High School band director William Henderson, who also attended, for providing guidance and ambassadorship throughout the trip. She said Henderson helped her plan, map out and tour both cities in an effective manner.

The Titans Band was able to take the trip through such fundraisers as bucket drops, selling cupcakes and popcorn, fish fries, car washes, performances, GoFundMe campaigns, donations and more. An anonymous benefactor also gifted the group $5,000.

Baptiste said the effort to raise money brought the Towers community together. Altogether, the group raised approximately $35,000 within six months.

“Fundraising not only helps you raise money, but it also gathers community effort, spirit and morale,” Baptiste said. “It brings parents together. It embraces everybody to accomplish one goal. It made the community stand for something—a purpose.”

Towers junior Jelena Herriott, who baked cupcakes on a daily basis to help fund the trip, said the entire process was a great experience. She said the school as a whole will grow because of the effort.

towers-band-students-group-picture“We went to the museum—that was one of my favorite places,” Herriott said. “The artwork, seeing it in person, physically, made such a big difference.”

Towers senior Michael Elliott called the trip phenomenal. He said the trip will leave a legacy for future classes at Towers High. While also being employed at a grocery store, Elliott said remaining committed to raising funds for the trip was hard, but that he never doubted it would happen.

“I never thought I would be able to go abroad unless I was in the military or something. The way I was raised, I was never supposed to leave Decatur. I’m still in shock,” Elliott said. “Our prom was themed ‘A night in Paris,’ and we were in Paris. It was amazing. People doubted us, but we left our mark and will continue to leave our mark. You have to be committed. Towers will be going again next year. We’re going to go to Tokyo.”

Sophomore Jermaine Taylor said he enjoyed experiencing a different culture. He said he is proud to be a student at Towers after seeing what could be accomplished.

“I enjoyed everything,” Taylor said. “We believed in ourselves. We went out there, didn’t play around, and raised the money for the trip. We made it.”

Towers principal Vincent Denson also played a key role by purchasing the passport for each of the 18 students selected for travel.

“I’m ecstatic. To be the first international trip in school history, it speaks volumes,” Denson said. “It gave us a chance to visit cultures outside of Decatur, DeKalb County and Georgia, period. [Most of] our kids had never been on a flight, much less overseas. There was so much love for the process. It was so profound.”

According to Baptiste, the trip brought students not only growth in their music endeavors, lifelong memories and cultural experience, but also something much more valuable: hope for the future.

She said it’s important to remember that some students had never traveled by plane, never been to an airport, or been outside DeKalb County. According to Baptiste, seeing the world broadened perspectives and provided experiences that cannot be replicated.

“Children need opportunities to develop into adulthood,” she said. “They also need mentors who can help them successfully transition to becoming young men and women with a purpose. This trip was about not exchanging culture but also preparing students for independency, communication, collaboration, music genre and diversity. As a young child growing up in poverty in New Orleans, I became an exchange student in third grade, which changed my life and gave me hope. I want to be able to offer students just that—hope!”

As a result of the trip, Towers High School band will receive an official proclamation from the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners in May.