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April 26, 2006

The Madison Community - Students, Parents, Professionals, Citizens - Can Help Elementary Strings: Here's How

The community CAN HELP elementary strings and fine arts education in MMSD. Please write the School Board - - ask them a) to establish a community fine arts education advisory committee beginning with a small community working group to put together a plan for this, b) develop a multi-year strategic and education plan for fine arts education, c) work with the music professionals and community to address short-term issues facing elementary music education (other fine arts areas - dance, drama) that supports children's learning and academic achievement. Until this is done, please write the School Board asking them not to accept (to reject) the Superintendent’s current K-5 music education proposal to eliminate elementary strings.

At this late date in the year, I feel a small community working group needs to be established that will develop a plan for moving forward with the community on fine arts education issues. I would be more than happy to volunteer my time to help coordinate this effort, which I see as a first step toward the establishment of a community fine arts education task force/advisory committee. However, what is key is the School Board’s support and the Superintendent’s leadership, and I would be honored to work with all members of the school board and with the Superintendent. I'm sure other people would be happy to help as well.

The issues with MMSD's fine arts elementary music education is not solely a budget issue, but the administration's lack of imagination and longer-term education planning in fine arts makes courses such as strings become budget issues because nothing is done from year to year to make it anything other than a budget issue.

Elementary strings is a high-demand course - this isn't 50 kids across the district, it was 1,745 in September 2005. From 1969 to 2005, enrollment has tripled, increasing by 1,000 students from 1992 until 2002, at the same time that the number of low income and minority children increased in the elementary student population. Demand for the course is annually 50% of the total enrollment in 4th and 5th grade. Plus, minority and low income enrollment has increased over the years. This year there are about 550 low income children enrolled in the elementary class. More low income children enrolled to take the course, but did not because of the pull out nature, I'm assuming. There is nowhere else in the City that so many low-income children have the opportunity to study an instrument at a higher level and continuously as part of their daily education.

Each spring, the administration waits until late April and then releases reports on elementary strings, saying they've worked hard, but can't figure it out. These documents imply that teachers have had input, but I can tell you that this spring's reports a) were not reviewed by teachers, and b) string teachers might have spent less than an hour or so learning about what other schools do, but they were not asked to be part of a process, they were not given objectives, process, timeline. And, they did not receive any draft documents to review. To me, this is unacceptable in the day and age of email.

I spoke before the board less than a month ago, saying how concerned I was that nothing had been done asking them to please avoid the past years’ mistakes and move forward working together, knowing how important this course is to the community and how quickly budget time was approaching. I asked the School Board to consider establishing an advisory Fine Arts Community Education Committee, because a) Madison values the arts and b) this would be a great vehicle to develop a fine arts education strategy. Shwaw Vang, who chaired the committee I spoke at, and other board members were supportive of my comments. If there are any plans to obtain private grants or private money, there must be a strategy in place that is clear and supported. Also, there must be vehicles that allow relationships to be built that will lead to contributions – this takes organization, commitment and time.
To be successful, support for fine arts education and a strategic plan has to come from the School Board and has to come from the Superintendent. So far, it has not, and I believe this has been damaging on so many fronts.

Both Art Rainwater and the Fine Arts Coordinator heard me say publicly another approach is needed, reports should be reviewed and have input from the appropriate professionals and that we should work together as we move forward. I said I wanted to be supportive and work together. I have spent time with each one of them privately saying the same things as I am writing here. Yet, at the meeting where I spoke publicly, neither person indicated to the school board publicly that a report with a proposal for K-5 music education was underway and would be sent to the school board shortly. No K-5 music teacher knew this report/memo was being prepared.

In my opinion, major issues negatively affecting music education are a) lack of top level administrative support for fine arts education and b) lack of multi-year planning in fine arts education, which would have been in place years ago when cuts first affected fine arts education if top level administrators cared about this education.

Sometimes approaches appear to me to reflect some sort of a mindset - that only administrators can do the job. The best administrators I encountered while working were those who knew how to surround themselves and work with the appropriate expertise, no matter what the issue. I have not seen this approach with fine arts education in Madison recently. Music education planning this year effectively has been closed - to teachers, to the School Board, to the public. In effect, the district added an additional administrative layer, that put up one more wall. I don't think the district and the community can afford additional layers of administrators who keep out and do not work side-by-side with teachers, other professionals and the community, keeping them informed and "in the loop," so to speak. It’s not productive and it is too expensive.

Why don't I feel the Superintendent’s approach takes fine arts education more seriously? Two years ago or more, the Superintendent requested a committee composed of parents come together to address specific issues re extracurricular sports when sports became an issue. No such action was forthcoming on fine arts, especially strings. We currently have board sponsored public committees on equity, animals in the classroom, boundaries. It's time for one for fine arts, and I think this has to come from the School Board and be co-chaired by members of the community.

I support referendums, adequate funding for our schools, and I abhor the legislature's lack of attention and failure to address school financing. However, locally, I feel our school board needs to encourage and to support different approaches and next steps. Please write to Madison's School Board members, asking them to do this for strings and fine arts education in MMSD.

Posted by at April 26, 2006 9:42 AM
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