Thomas Kanwischer | Courtesy of Oak Park District 97

When Thomas Kanwischer was a middle schooler, he had a band director who urged him to hone his talents, study and play. Kanwischer did just that, carving out an 18-year career as a music educator at Oak Park School District 97, sharing his former teacher’s message to inspire the next generation of young musicians. 

“Since I was in the sixth grade, I couldn’t even think of doing anything else because this is what I’m good at,” said Kanwischer, who serves as the district’s band director. He has called upon a fleet of music teachers to cultivate a space for students to discover themselves through songs, scales and rhythms, and their efforts are being recognized yet again as one of the country’s best programs.

For the third year in a row, D97’s music program was awarded the “Best Communities for Music Education” by the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation. D97 was one of 738 school districts which received the honor, drawing attention to the work of teachers, administrators, families and local leaders to support a music program. A total of 22 Illinois school districts were named, including D97, Riverside School District 96 and Berwyn North School District 98.

According to a press release, D97 officials answered several questions about their music program ranging from funding and instruction to class participation and graduation. Responses were then submitted and reviewed by the Music Research Institute at the University of Kansas, the release also stated.  

“We’re thrilled to get this honor again, and we’re surrounded by some really phenomenal programs that have also won the award,” Kanwischer said.

Kanwischer told Wednesday Journal he credited the award to D97’s partnership with the nonprofit PING!, which works to provide students in need with band and orchestra instruments. The Oak Park-based organization has been vital to helping sustain the district’s music program participants over the years and especially during the pandemic as local families were impacted financially, Kanwischer said.

“Without their support, we wouldn’t be able to continue what we’re doing,” he said about PING!, which is short for Providing Instruments for the Next Generation. The nonprofit became a lifeline for families in search of a helping hand so their children could continue their music education even in COVID times.

The band director also shared that music is part of the district’s curricula and open to all students. Kindergarten through fifth-grade students are to attend an hour-long music class, while middle schoolers can choose among band, choir or orchestra. Those opportunities, Kanwischer said, are not always available at other schools.

As Kanwischer reflected more on the award, he talked about the pride he felt not only as an educator, but an Oak Park resident and parent of District 97 children.

“It’s just validation, and it’s an honor. It helps us to say what all this hard work that everybody puts into the program is [for],” he said. “I think it gives our community something that they can be proud of too.”

“There’s a reason why people move here and put their kids in the school – and frankly make a sacrifice to do that,” he said. “A huge part of that is because kids have a really broad experience in school, which includes music.”

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