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The Day Music Died in Redwood City Schools

Ohanian Comment: Instrumental music being the most important influence in my Grade 4-12 education, I started crying when I read this. The only kids still getting music are the ones in districts wealthy enough to have parent-funding foundations. One more erosion of public education for the common good.

Vivian Euzent will lift her baton this evening to lead the Kennedy Middle School concert band in ``Drums On A Budget.''

She hadn't planned the irony -- but it will be her last concert with the Redwood City Elementary School District. And it will be the last concert for all 800 district students whom Euzent and three other teachers have taught to play violins, flutes, trumpets and, yes, drums during the past decade.

For all of those students, the music is over. When voters failed to pass a parcel tax this month by a narrow margin, the district, which has cut $8 million from its budget in five years, made the heartbreaking decision to eliminate instrumental music teaching in its 15 schools.

This San Mateo County school district is not alone. Music and art programs sit on a fragile edge as educational funds retreat. Many districts nationwide now depend on the help of volunteers and foundations to sustain arts education.

In the South Bay, parent boosters keep alive Buchser Middle School's music program in Santa Clara. Cupertino, recently named one of the 100 best communities for music education in America, depends on the Cupertino Education Endowment Foundation. San Jose's Eastside Union High School District kept its music instruction afloat by sacrificing summer school at seven of its 12 schools.

``I am a strong believer in the arts, particularly in schools where there are students who are academically challenged and need these types of programs to provide them with an opportunity to succeed,'' said Eastside Superintendent Esperanza Zendejas, who remembers that her first award in school was an art certificate.

Over the past few years, San Jose Unified has had to cut music instruction in 26 of its 28 elementary schools and is hanging on with strong programs in middle and high schools. But the district is working with the Ford Foundation to bring music back to the younger children -- for the very same reason Redwood City administrators hate to lose it.

``We just know there are all sorts of ways for students to learn,'' said San Jose Unified spokeswoman Karen Fuqua. ``We know the arts are a really good way to deliver curriculum.''

Power of music

In the past few years, no one has needed to persuade anyone at the Redwood City School District of the power of music. About half of Redwood City's 9,000 students are learning English and qualify for federal lunch programs for low-income families.

But teachers and administrators tell of students who struggled academically until they learned they could succeed at music and how that confidence led them to other successes in non-music classes. Other kids come to school just for the music and stick it out all the way to graduation.

Euzent's students include those in special education classes. ``They might not do well in math or reading, so for some this is the only class they're successful in,'' she said. ``They learn how to focus and start feeling like, `I can do something.' It doesn't matter if you're too tall or too short, if you can play your instrument well, you have respect.''

The daughter of the district's education foundation director, Barbara Pierce, had a learning disability. ``Music really connected with her,'' Pierce said. Her daughter is getting her elementary school teaching credential now -- and will only work in a school system with strong arts support, Pierce said.

A second family

Euzent also knows that playing together in band or orchestra builds a second family and a sense of responsibility to the group. ``In a concert, everybody has to be there -- and you're important,'' she said. ``Nobody wants to let their friends down.''

And while some students' parents might be able to afford private lessons, their children won't have an orchestral experience, said Jodee Steiner, a musician whose two younger children play in the band and orchestra. And her family's budget can't handle the $30 to $50 an hour for lessons.

Fundraising campaign

Euzent and the other teachers have kept up the band and orchestra's spirits by telling them that nothing is final yet about the program's demise, that there might be a chance for music next year. A group of about 100 community members met last week to plan a fundraising campaign for music and other threatened programs. If they can raise about $300,000 by July 1, they can give the music teachers a commitment before they have to start looking for new jobs.

The plan, Pierce said, ``involves truly inviting the community to get involved in making sure our children have these programs.''

Vanessa Baez, 13, hopes they succeed. The eighth-grader is sad for her teacher, Euzent, and she keeps thinking about the sixth- and seventh-graders who won't have music classes next year. ``They won't get a chance to improve or anything.''

The music program supporters are looking not only for ways to fund next year's music classes, but for ways to protect its future. For starters, they're in the market for a big musical talent to perform at a benefit.

Before he's ready to give up, school board member Dennis McBride wants people to understand just what can happen to a kid when music takes hold. He thinks of the Redwood City middle-schooler who went to a local grocery store every day for three months for three hours after school to play his violin for tips from passersby. He was raising money to take his mother along on the band's trip to Disneyland.


Tonight's concert is free. At 6:30 p.m., K-5 and Kennedy Middle School will play. At 8 p.m., K-8 and McKinley Institute of Technology will play. Carrington Hall, Sequoia High School, 1201 Brewster Ave., Redwood City. For information on how to help, visit www.rcef.org or email barbara@barbarapierce.com.

— S.L. Wykes
San Jose Mercury News





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