For Philip Powitzky, playing drums in his school’s rock band is like taking a “vacation” from his daily struggles.
“For me, it’s all I have left right now,” said Powitzky, 16, a student at the The Andrew Jackson School, a K-8 school in South Philadelphia.
Ben Kalina, a 2011 film and media arts alumnus, would hear faint murmurs of the band playing as he passed the school each day on his way to his office at Mangrove Media, a Philadelphia-based video production company. He was searching for a subject for a new documentary, but had never considered the Jackson students as an option until his friend introduced him to the school band’s director, Chris Argerakis.
Argerakis, the K-8 music teacher at Andrew Jackson, founded the school’s rock band, Home, in 2008. Starting in 2015, Kalina began to film the school’s daily operations and band practices throughout the school year.
His resulting documentary, also called “Home,” will air on WHYY on Friday at 2 p.m.
The film examines the efforts of Argerakis and the school principal, Lisa Kaplan, to sustain the band despite a lack of funding at the school. Kaplan received the 2015 Escalante-Gradillas Prize for Best in Education, a national education award granted by TheBestSchools.org, an educational website for higher education and career planning.
For the past nine years, Argerakis has conducted the band, which grew from a small guitar ensemble to a group that has now performed at venues like the Kimmel Center, Wells Fargo Center and the National Constitution Center.
The band consists of about 20 to 30 students, most of whom are middle schoolers, Argerakis said.
“What inspired me to start [the band] was to give the Jackson kids more opportunities,” Argerakis said. “That’s always the first thing, what experience and exposure you can give to your students.”
Since the band’s inception, Argerakis said he has worked hundreds of hours each year without additional pay to run the band. Due to personal financial issues, he almost ended the band during the 2015-16 school year.
“It’s about 250 hours a year,” Argerakis said. “But honestly it’s a total labor of love.”
In 2012, Argerakis started a second band to accommodate younger students and prepare them for Home. This year, about 70 students are participating in the junior band, he said.
For some students, Argerakis not only exposed them to rock music, but gave them a place to be happy.
“Every time we play or have practice, to me it’s like the best thing I could ever do,” Powitzsky said.
Beyond the opportunity to pursue music in the classroom, Powitzsky said playing in Home offers him the ability to perform at places he once could only dream of.
“It was my dream to play here,” Powitzky said of Home’s most recent performance at the Kimmel Center. “I just never thought it would happen so easily.”
Kalina said he wanted to make a movie for parents and kids to watch together. While “Home” captures several performances of the band, it also sheds light on the issue of arts education in Philadelphia public schools.
According to the School District of Philadelphia’s interactive map for arts education resources, 29 catchment areas, or boundaries that define the populations for neighborhood schools, have no full-time music teachers.
After filming for nearly 10 months, Kalina said he developed a greater appreciation for the stresses of operating a public school.
“I gained more and more sympathy for people like Chris and Lisa,” Kalina said. “[Lisa] was doing everything, she does everything, that’s the kind of pressure she was under.”
Argerakis said he hopes the audience will finish the film as supporters of the arts.
“I want people to not dismiss public schools, and most importantly, be an advocate for arts in public schools,” Kalina added.