Newly retired teacher expands fund to help children who can’t afford music camp

By supporting the Spencer J. Steiff fund, Deborah Katz wants to level the playing field

By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor

When Deborah Katz decided to retire this year after 30 years teaching music for Ann Arbor Public Schools, she knew she wanted to somehow help AAPS music students in need of financial support.

Actually, it’s an idea she’s had for about 30 years—ever since she came to AAPS as coordinator of music education and began to wrestle with minority representation in advanced ensembles.

The picture wasn’t pretty.

“One of the gifts AAPS has given me is that I’ve become very aware of who is and who isn’t represented in musical ensembles all over the country,” she said. “Ann Arbor’s been working hard at this. We have a lot of initiatives. The whole world is having this problem, particularly in the world of classical music performance. It doesn’t reflect the diversity of our country, and that’s true here.  So I’ve been aware of this my whole career here.  I had to report those numbers every year and didn’t like what I saw.”

As she was nearing retirement this spring, she reached out to AAPS Strategic Partnership and Volunteer Coordinator Nancy Shore to learn how to support AAPS music students from families of limited means.

Shore mentioned the Spencer J. Steiff fund.

                                  Deborah Katz

Katz recalls: “I thought: `Why didn’t I think of that! Of course! Nancy said it was pretty much out of money. I knew it was the perfect match.”

In fact, Katz had helped start the fund in the first place.

Spencer was her sixth grade music student at Scarlett Middle School when he died unexpectedly.

At the time of his death, Spencer had a scholarship for Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. He and his parents worked with Blue Lake to reassign the scholarship to another Scarlett student.

One thing led to another, and eventually to the formation of the Spencer J. Steiff music camp scholarship which was run by the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation until the foundation closed last year, and AAPS took over its management and administration.

The purpose of the scholarship is to provide students from Scarlett Middle School with financial need the opportunity to attend a band camp in Michigan.  When AAPS took over the management and administration of the scholarship, the fund balance was less than $700.

Spencer loved playing his French horn.

Now Katz has fueled it with $5,000 of her own money, has started fundraising to add more, and has expanded the fund to help many more music students with financial need.

“It allows Spencer’s name to stay present, which is important to me and the family,” said Katz. “But my interest was to do something a little broader, so I contacted Julie (Spencer’s mother) to float this idea by her to try to aggressively fundraise for this, and open its description.”

Julie Steiff says it gives her family great joy to help students go to music camp in her son’s memory.

“We thank the many generous people who join us in remembering Spencer and supporting
the goal of a rich musical education for all Ann Arbor students,” she says.

Now while the fund will still send selected Scarlett students to music camp every year, it will also offer grants to all AAPS music programs to help students with financial need take advantage of musical opportunities that they otherwise couldn’t afford. That could include coaching, concert tickets, instruments supplies, etc.

So now even more children-especially those from underrepresented populations-will have the opportunity to enhance their music skills and talents.

“A student with resources can buy a fancy mouthpiece,” said Katz. “They can attend concerts. They have access to mentoring from quality performers. Students without opportunity—and that really means money—just don’t have the same access to those things.”

The goal is to find more ways for students with limited financial means to gain more opportunities.

“So my job post-retirement is looking for funding sources,” she said. “I’m excited. I feel this is a chance for me and for Ann Arbor Public Schools to look at another way to help solve this challenge of leveling the playing field for students with financial needs and students who don’t typically see themselves in our ensembles.”

Donations to the Spencer Steiff Fund may be sent to: Ann Arbor Community Education & Recreation, attention Nancy Shore; 1515 South Seventh; Ann Arbor; 48103. Include “Spencer Steiff Fund” in the memo line of the check, which should be payable to Ann Arbor Public Schools.

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