Continue Elementary Strings – 550 Low-Income Children Deserve the Opportunity to Proudly Play Their Instruments

On Wednesday, May 31st, the MMSD School Board will consider amendments to the 2006-2007 school budget proposed by the Superintedent. In his proposal, the Superintendent proposed cutting Grade 4 strings this year and Grade 5 strings the end of next year. One amendment to be discussed on Wednesday would have Grade 4 strings 1x per week (45 minutes) and Grade 5 2x per week (45 minutes each class).
Students who will be affected the most are our low-income children. There is no other place in Dane County that can teach so many low-income children. This year about 550 low-income students took elementary strings. Fewer opportunities at this age will lead to fewer low-income/minority students in our middle and high school orchestras and band – this is a direction we do not want to move in as our student body becomes more diverse.
Like it or not, people moving into the area with children check out what schools offer – our suburban school districts have elementary string programs that are growing in many towns.
I’ve advocated for a community committee for fine arts education to develop a long-term plan for this academic area. I hope this comes to pass, but first I hope the School Board favorably considers this amendment and follows Lawrie Kobza’s idea – hold off spending on “things” because people cannot be added back in as easily as things can be added back into the budget.
I’ve written a letter to the school board that follows:

Dear Madison School Board,
Last week, I had the honor of listening to more than 130 4th and 5th grade students give a ½ half hour concert for their parents and classmates. These children were so excited being able to play for an audience. I have to admit, I wasn’t sure how their teacher would get them organized and ready to play, but he did, and the concert was terrific! What a wonderful experience for player and audience alike.
Thank you for considering options to continue elementary strings, which is the first two years of the district’s Grade 4-12 instrumental academic program. I implore you to support the following option: Grade 4 – 1x per week (45 minute class) and Grade 5 – 2x per week (45 minute classes) for the following reasons:
A. Low income children will be affected the most by cuts to Grade 4 strings – about 550 low-income children participated in elementary strings this year, an increase from several years ago. We need to develop opportunities (lessons, small group rehearsals) that will help all children be successful performers on his/her instrument. Opportunities, such as these, need to BUILD UPON what children learn during the day in a large group class.
B. Equity in making cuts – last year this course was cut too much – 50%, which is more than any other academic course that is highly valued and has a strong demand. The burden of cuts needs to be shared, yet we need to protect our academic courses. I support Lawrie Kobza’s proposal to cut “things” now, not staff. As the School Board learns more about the budget after it is implemented, “things” can be added back in. Once the school year has begun, it’s next to impossible to add back staff.
C. DPI Standards – recommend beginning violin instruction in Grade 4 as does MMSD’s curriculum. There has been no curriculum assessment of the district’s music education with teachers, parents, music professionals involved. I feel this is important before any changes to this curriculum, or any academic curriculum, are made. Promises of planning are inappropriate.
D. Children’s interest and demand – remains strong and has grown during the past 15 years, AT THE SAME TIME that the district’s low-income and minority population has grown. Consistently, 1,800 to 2,000 children have signed up each year for elementary strings. They may not all come to School Board meetings, but like the hundreds of parents, students and community members who have spoken and emailed the School Board these past 5 springs, these students make their wishes known by taking elementary strings, learning to play and playing their hearts out at concerts for the community.
E. Middle school students want more music in school – elementary strings is an important stepping stone to more advanced performance. Nothing in General Music alone prepares them to perform at a level children can play after two years of elementary strings. Middle and high school music classes are larger – requiring fewer staff than other classes.
For 5 springs, the community has spoken up for elementary strings. Students have spoken about how important these classes are to their education, parents share with you what their children’s experiences are, community members tell you how much they value elementary strings. Please help them.
I’ve been asking the School Board to consider putting in place a community fine arts education committee to develop a long-term strategic plan for fine arts. I hope the School Board takes a leadership role and moves forward with such an effort. But, first, please continue elementary strings.
Barbara M. Schrank, Ph.D.

2 thoughts on “Continue Elementary Strings – 550 Low-Income Children Deserve the Opportunity to Proudly Play Their Instruments”

  1. Actually, 550 low income kids don’t deserve the opportunity to proudly play their instruments; rather, every low income kid in the MMSD deserves that chance. And, it seems, the MMSD doesn’t do such a good job of recruiting low income kids to play, or they’d need twice as many teachers and classrooms for their strings program. The sad reality is that some of our schools have very high rates of low income participation in strings, while other schools have very low (or non-existant) rates of participation.
    The real story is the other kids who never set foot in a strings classroom during their elementary years.

  2. Good point, David. I was focusing on the existing children enrolled in the course, and the diminished instruction for these children and for next year’s 4th graders.
    I would like all children who want to have an opportunity to play strings to have a sound educational beginning to playing an instrument – not just exploration. Rather than having an administration that insists on issuing spring reports solely on the existing strings course, I would like to see a community music committee/fine arts education committe formed to address issues facing fine arts education – possibly putting pilots in place. There is much we can do, but we need to work and to plan together. The arts are so important to children’s education and deserves our support and better planning.
    The proposed administration processes and changes for elementary instrumental music education, however, go in the opposite direction and have not included teachers, or others, in identifying issues, barriers, and proposed options. I hope this exclusionary planning stops and is no longer tolerated by this School Board for fine arts as well as other curriculum.

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