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Marked absent: Many Oregon students will do without music and art classes

Ohanian Comment: I don't need to make a rant about the importance of music, art, PE, and libraries. With our worship of standardized test scores, we are systematically destroying a generation of children.

Modest Money-Saving Proposal: Test children on the first day of school. Those who test on grade level should be certified "proficient" and sent home for the year, thereby saving the district a lot of money. In truth, with the increasingly regimented, narrow curriculum, children might well be better off at home.

by Kimberly Melton

Many kids look forward to going to choir class at the end of the day or performing in uniform with the school band for the first time.

They clamor to get to the paints and colored pencils in art class, to create a castle, an airplane or a cartoon.

But when schools reopen this week, most Oregon students will have fewer opportunities to take advantage of these courses -- classes that many say are necessary for a well-rounded education.

From Burns to Dallas to Portland, school districts say vanishing state revenue, rising costs and increased pressure to meet standardized testing benchmarks in subjects like reading and math are threatening to squeeze out courses in the arts, music, physical education and career education.

As the Dallas School District looked for ways to close a $1.3 million gap, the 3,200-student district and its school board made what they called one of their most controversial decisions -- eliminating elementary school music.

"We know that education is about more than reading, writing and math, but you have to make decisions somewhere," said Superintendent Christy Perry. "Music is so valuable to us. Our teachers would say add back music before adding back days. We're all thinking, how do we do what's right for kids when there are no right answers?"

Dallas officials cut three school days last year and are planning to cut seven days this year. They've also cut back in non-classroom spending and reduced library media assistants to half-time.

School officials say it's difficult after several years of reductions to avoid cuts that hurt students. In smaller school districts, it's nearly impossible to make one change without affecting the entire district.

In Burns, the district's only art teacher retired in June. And, as the revenue forecast plummeted this summer, district Superintendent Bob Sari said he realized he wouldn't have the money to bring in a replacement.

"It's been a steady decline," Sari said. "I was really upbeat and feeling good when we heard about the jobs bill. Now, we're back where we've been. We've whacked our budget so much it seems there is nowhere else to go."

What's happening in Oregon is playing out throughout the nation, as school districts struggle to figure out what will survive in the midst of an economic downturn. Art, library and music are increasingly unlikely to be counted among schools' top priorities nationally and locally.

"We're in an environment where schools are proved to be successful by these narrow measures in very few subjects," said Mike Blakeslee, senior deputy executive director of MENC: The National Association for Music Education. "Even if I see that music education is a benefit to kids on a day to day basis, the evaluation of my school, my county at the end of the year will be based solely on standardized test scores in a few subjects."

Portland Public Schools is eliminating at least 12 music teaching positions and Beaverton School District axed its small orchestra program. Last year, Ashland nixed the 5th grade strings program and Jim Tindall became North Wasco County School District's only certified librarian, serving five schools and 3,000 kids.

In Oregon, legislators have supported statewide standards for physical education and passed a bill that required districts to address library programs. Right now, those goals seem out of reach for many districts.

Kids will still have time for play at recess but many will have fewer opportunities to meet with a trained teacher to learn team games, coordination and nutrition.

Most school libraries will be open this year, but more will be without certified librarians to teach students how to mine a database or distinguish truth from fiction on websites.

Susan Stone, president-elect of the Oregon Association of School Librarians, said one of her big concerns is that few school districts in Oregon have a plan for having certified teaching librarians in their schools at all.

"We keep talking about rigorous curriculum, but library and research skills have been put to the sidelines," she said. "College freshmen are coming into college and don't know how to search a database, how to cite or critically evaluate articles. It makes sense when they come from a district where that's not taught."

Around the nation, certified teaching librarians are spending more time teaching English and reading, or managing a school's technology programs than teaching research skills. To save money, many Oregon districts depend on part-time education assistants to check out books and keep the library functional.

Many school districts are seeking creative ways to bolster arts and music programs. Beaverton is pursuing a federal $4 million grant that could help to provide art at elementary schools over five years. North Clackamas School District reduced staffing for PE and music but will continue to offer the courses twice a week by increasing class sizes on certain days.

But with limited time and resources, students will feel the effects of district choices and budget reductions.

In Forest Grove, five music teachers will serve seven elementary schools after the elimination of one elementary music position in the 5,800-student district. It's unclear whether the music teachers will be able to teach kindergarten music.

Barbara Delegato has been teaching music in Forest Grove for nearly 30 years, most recently split between two small rural elementary schools. This year, she'll travel among three schools to work with more than 450 students, introducing them to scales and fractions, musical notes and the history of music, xylophones and drumming.

But this year, they'll be no evening music programs, no all-school musicals.

"In the small rural communities, it's a tradition," Delegato said. "But I physically won't be there enough to do auditions, practices. I still see students who come up to me and remember those programs. They were things that helped kids move on, helped them do better in school, stay in school. Those relationships might not be built and that's what children need.... I love my job but I think it's a scary path we're on."

— Kimberly Melton
The Oregonian





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