Elementary Strings: Update and Community Appeal

Action and Help Needed: I am beginning to work with some parents and others in the community to raise awareness and possibly financial support for all fine arts education. If you are interested in learning more, or would like to help, let me know (schrank4@charter.net or 231-3954). I will be posting on the blog more of what we are doing, including surveys and petitions of support.
Due to the proposed budget gap for next year and the Superintendent’s preliminary discussion idea to cut up to $300,000 from elementary strings, our focus will be on this course in the short-term. Elementary strings is only one piece of Fine Arts Education, but there is no other organization that teaches so many low income children how to play an instrument for about $200 per child vs. $2,000 per child in private instruction. We would like to resolve this issue this spring, working collaboratively with the administration and the school board.
The School Board would like proposals from the community re supporting elementary strings. I have begun working with parents and others on this topic, and I welcome ideas and support from readers of this blog. In addition to various proposals for School Board consideration, which I’m being encouraged to submit, we feel there is a need to raise awareness of the importance of a strong, vibrant standards-based, academic fine arts education. For an instrumental curriculum that meets national and state standards, course instruction begins in Grade 4 and classes are held at least twice weekly during the day.
The demand for elementary strings from parents and students has been and continues to be strong; but sadly, I feel the administration (not the School Board) has been a barrier to moving forward in partnership with the community, preferring each year to cut and to whittle away the course each year rather than gather the community together to bring ideas and solutions to the table. Last November, I asked District Administration for the following basic information: number of elementary string students, number of FTEs, number of middle and high school band and string students, number of FTEs, and revenue collected. I have not received this information, which I need to work on proposals, even though I have asked for the information repeatedly. The administration may have a lot on their plate, but I was only asking for basic information needed to develop some proposals for board consideration. I thought, perhaps the administration is working on their own proposals to continue this course, but that is not the case.
Up until a few years ago, there were nearly 2,000 4th and 5th grade students taking elementary strings, 30-40% of these children were low income (600+ children). During the 1990s, as the district’s low income population increased, enrollment in elementary strings doubled from about 1,000 students in 1991 to more than 1,900 in after the year 2000.
Elementary strings has been part of the Madison schools for more than 40 years. Growing school districts around Madison offer this course, and the enrollment is growing. Grandparents and parents who live in Madison took this course when they were in elementary school. The large string festival is one of other opportunities that make our elementary schools unique. If we want to keep parents sending their children to Madison, and to keep the needed diversity in our schools, I think this course is important and unique to Madison.
I hope some of you will join me in supporting a vibrant fine arts education for our children and working on proposals for elementary strings. Thank you for reading this blog item,

Background: In December 2006, Supt. Rainwater wrote a memo to the School Board outlining ideas for discussion for possible cuts to balance the budget. Not only is the District facing budget cuts from revenue caps but there is a structural deficit in the budget of about $6 million.
The Superintendent provided the School Board with a list of possibilities – one more troubling than the other. For example, increased class sizes, was on the list. A couple of weeks ago, the School Board discussed increasing class sizes, including increases in class sizes for specials.
On the list was a specific recommendation to cut up to $300,000 from strings. In checking with the Superintendent, he said the amount was for elementary strings.

5 thoughts on “Elementary Strings: Update and Community Appeal”

  1. Thank you Barb for 5 years of tireless support for Elementary Strings. I really admire this program and am determined to assist in the effort to keep Strings in our elementary schools.
    I would hope the Fine Arts Coordinator would lead or at a minimum join in the effort to protect this program by seeking creative, community funding solutions. I have talked to many people who want to preserve this opportunity at the Elementary level.
    What is the true cost of this program? It should be a basic equation based on the calculation of current enrollment minus fee collection. Like many other parents, I did pay for Strings instruction and instrument rental through MMSD for the 2006/07 School Year.
    As a parent and citizen I am willing to assist in fundraising and grant writing. Elimination of this program will irrevocably alter the middle school and high school orchestra programs. I personally have seen the learning that occurs and how it supports core curriculum like math and reading.
    If we are looking for creative solutions to bridge the achievement gap and keep kids in school we should not eliminate proven programs students and their families appreciate. Let’s instead find a way to involve the community.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Nancy. If you focus on kids joy in learning and performing on their stringed instruments and later performing in middle and high school bands and orchestras, it’s easy to see elementary strings is an important foundation for success and growth in those upper grades combined with the other benefits for young children of studying and playing an instrument.
    I would like to emphasize an important point Nancy made:
    “I would hope the Fine Arts Coordinator would lead or at a minimum join in the effort to protect this program by seeking creative, community funding solutions.” Half the salary and benefits of the Fine Arts Coordinator is paid directly and solely by the Madison community’s property taxes.

  3. Barb,
    Are you trying to get the answers via email or phone? Have you enlisted the press at all in your effort to get those basic bits of information?
    At a meeting last fall between Art Rainwater and various PTO presidents, Mr. Rainwater said that he’s always happy to make an appointment to see anyone about anything. I’d encourage you to make that appointment, letting him know in advance that you’ll be there to COLLECT those figures, not ask for them again.
    Also, I recall asking at that meeting about future plans for dealing with differentiation effectively when the regular, anticipated budget cuts will no doubt decrease the number of support personnel who teach our teachers how to differentiate, and when class sizes are no doubt going to increase, making it harder for teachers to differentiate. Mr. Rainwater was quite adamant that class sizes were NOT getting bigger and that there were no plans for that to happen.
    I don’t recall hearing that the anticipated budget shortfall is any bigger than it was in the fall. In fact, the referendum passed, which freed up a little more money, and Mr. Rainwater’s preference for Governor also won. Given those positive steps, as he explained during the meeting, the shortfall is not quite as drastic as it could have been. Yet now, suddenly, bigger class sizes are being bandied about.
    Sorry to go off on the tangent. I do support elementary strings and would like to see it come back to 4th grade. I don’t know if it’s gone from 4th grades district wide, or if it’s just gone from Orchard Ridge Elementary. But it’d be nice to get it back for 4th grade and not have 5th grade strings suffer, either.
    What sort of community effort are you envisioning? Do you have any preliminary ideas? Again, I’d encourage you to call (daily, if necessary) Mr. Rainwater’s office for those figures, explaining that you’ve been trying for xx weeks/months to get them from his staff with no luck at all. As another option, could a school board member get them for you? Or someone in the finance dept.?

  4. 4th grade strings is gone at Thoreau too. It was quite a surprise to many parents. I thought in the spring that 4th grade strings had been saved and was waiting for the sign-up sheet to come home this fall, when I started to see 5th graders going around with their violins. A lot of parents rely on this program as a way for their kids to be introduced to an instrument at an appropriate age. In many communities which have 6th grade at elementary school, band begins in 5th grade. We already lack that opportunity. It’s too bad to lose the strings as well.
    Sunday’s WSJ profiles the 4 MSO Bolz Young Artist Competition finalists. One of them, Sakura Takemitsu, first played violin in the public school music program, although her listed starting age of 11 is older than 4th grade. But still, she got her start through the public schools.

  5. Celeste and Diane – thank you for your comments and ideas. I did meet with Art Rainwater last week who said he a) supports elementary string curriculum instruction during the school day, b) would accept proposals for privately funding elementary string education.
    I also said I felt the support and/or leadership of the Fine Arts Coordinator was important to such an effort, and he agreed, saying the Fine Arts Coordinator would be supportive. Also, I finally asked a School Board member to get some basic class enrollment information, because I was not getting a response from the administration and that information finally arrived last Thursday – three months after my request, one week after a School Board member requested this information.
    To me, it appears the focus of the administration is on improving the General Music course. There is a committee undertaking an improvement of this broad-based curriculum. No similar efforts are underway for the instrumental portion of the music education curriculum. DPIs guidelines for standards-based music education recommend beginning elementary strings in Grade 4 two times per week and beginning band instruction in Grade 5.
    The Superintendent is likely to propose cutting elementary strings 100%, but he is not doing this for any other high-demand academic course or extracurricular activity. For example, while onerous, he “only” discussed cutting extracurricular sports 30%. If you are supportive of a course and want to help that course, which has a high demand, continue but be funded privately, some transition seems more reasonable and equitable.

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