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Will Shrinking Budgets Affect Music Programs?

Ohanian Comment: Cutting back students' opportunities to participate in music will have longterm, devastating effects. We can't really know the longterm harm done by sacrificing the arts to test prep.

Amy North and fellow Lincoln High symphonic band members Jason Castro, Becky Lodes and Eric Neff want everyone to realize how important music is in their lives.
Lincoln High symphonic band trumpeter Amy North, a senior, has been in band since the fifth grade. (Robert Becker)

North began playing an instrument in fifth grade and through the years, into this her senior year, it has shaped her life experience.

"Having all these music programs, it's a big part of who we are. It has a big impact on all of our lives," she said.

Lincoln Public Schools officials understand music is important for students.

At a meeting of the Lincoln Board of Education on Tuesday, they renewed their commitment to music with a philosophy statement wholeheartedly endorsing children singing, playing musical instruments and studying modern music, the classics and everything in between.

"Students in all grades must have opportunities to continuously develop their musical skills and knowledge to their fullest potential," the philosophy statement read.

The major objectives of music education number 17. They ask schools to develop opportunities for students to perform music alone and with others, to improvise and compose music, to enjoy the academic benefits of the systematic study of music, among others.

But although the sentiments are nice, teachers, students and people in Lincoln's music community worry that shrinking budgets and pressures on teachers and students to pass state and federal reading, math and writing requirements may be eroding those opportunities.

"We're down one and a half staff members from a year ago," said Terry Rush, Lincoln High School band director and teacher.

The effect of that is substantial, he said. Many students go without individual help. Two select choir opportunities have been dropped. Music theory instruction has been compromised. The music department can't buy the new instruments it needs or fix some of the older, broken ones.

"I've done this for 26 years, and it's frustrating that I can't do my job," Rush said.

The music department is lucky, he said, to have supportive parents who raise about $10,000 a year help out.

"Our band parents organization works like crazy to keep us going," said Dan Ehly, who supervises the ninth-grade marching band and the concert band.

Maxey Elementary music teacher Sylvia Bailey said at her school, students used to get 250 minutes of music instruction a week. This year, they get 200 minutes.

"We really feel the pinch when we try to do a concert," she said.

As pressures increase for students to pass reading, math and writing tests mandated by federal No Child Left Behind legislation, some schools are forced to spend more time preparing students to pass those tests.

"If you're going to have uniformity and standards that everybody has to meet, one of those has to be instructional time," she said.

Music is considered enrichment rather than core education, and some school districts across the country have reduced or eliminated music offerings.

But studies show that music can enhance learning in other areas, especially math and science, by giving a boost to spatial IQs. It can also help a child develop self-discipline, dexterity, coordination, self-esteem, thinking and listening skills and creativity.

At Tuesday's school board meeting, board member Doug Evans asked district officials to explore ways to use music to help kids who struggle in math.

"Kids out there are failing in math for a variety of reasons," he said. "But almost every one of them, when you talk to their parents, like music. There's a correlation between those two things. There ought to be a way of hooking those two together."

Board member Lillie Larsen said she is concerned that middle school students who need remedial help with math and reading are losing their opportunities to participate in music, unless it's before or after school.

She isn't the only one with that concern. Joan Reist, chair of the Nebraska Coalition for Music Education, said middle school is a critical time for kids to be involved in music, particularly in singing groups.

"If they don't have the experience (in middle school), they're not going to continue in high school, and high school music classes are going to suffer," she said.

Instrumental music is in better shape, she said. "But I hear those programs are being eroded, as well."

When principals are allowed to decide which programs will be funded at their schools and which won't, music and other arts may not be a top choice, she said.

"Unless it's a districtwide decision that all these things must happen, they will happen in some places and not in others," Reist said.

Moore said that when budget and testing demands force a choice in schools, elective classes are the ones that are affected.

In seventh grade, for example, students can take two electives. "We have tried to get kids into the classes they care the very most about," she said.

But if a student needs help in both math and reading, that takes priority.

In some schools where music teachers have been reduced, teachers in other subjects have been, too, she said.

Budget reductions have affected every department, she said.

"Even with the budget crunch, objectives can be met," Moore said, "in all content areas. It's just harder in elective areas."

Reach JoAnne Young at 473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

— JoAnne Young
Lincoln Journal Star


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