Every child deserves an instrument if they want to play one. That’s how the San Lorenzo Unified School District (SLZUSD) feels about music in school, anyways.
“I truly believe that every child, not just the private schools, where the people who can afford it, every child deserves to have music, free, provided for them,” says Erin Licht, a music teacher at Bohannon middle school for the last 10 years.
That ambitious goal, for the most part, is being achieved by the district on a daily basis. But with an unfailingly stringent state budget casting a looming shadow of red ink over music and art programs in K-12 schools, SLZUSD has already seen its share of cutbacks.
From fiscal year 2008 until 2013, California has the second highest drop in per student spending by dollar amount in the entire country, down $1,105, or 17.3 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ (CBPP) survey of 48 states.
California’s latest budget includes anticipated funds from Proposition 30, a tax initiative that raises sales and income taxes to fund education. Without its passage, these numbers could dip further.
In attempts to save money, SLZUSD went through a series of cuts to its elementary level music program, eventually cutting off choir and all instrumental instruction in first through fifth grades, save for a limited recorder program, primarily for fourth grade children.
Licht teaches a multitude of daily classes, as do most music teachers in the district, to sixth, seventh and eighth grade students, including mixed band and beginner and advanced guitar. She feels the downsizing of the elementary music program is detrimental to the students.
“The way the brain works, the younger you get music, the better musician you become,” she says. “The students who are really good now, I just think about how much better they could have been if the program had not been cut.”
Vernon Miyata, a music teacher at Arroyo High School, believes one of the biggest needs in the district is to reinstate the elementary programs to help reinforce academic concepts in young pupil’s minds that can spill over into other fields.
Available data stands behind this claim that teachers and supervisors throughout SLZUSD continually point out.
Research shows training children in music “…results in long-term enhancement of visual-spatial, verbal, and mathematical performance,” according to a study entitled “Effects of Music Training on the Child’s Brain and Cognitive Development,” published in the academic journal “Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences” in 2006.
The remaining bright spot for the district is the prevalence of music education in secondary schools.
Between six music instructors across high school and middle school, the programs manage to provide every student who wishes to be enrolled in music classes with an instrument that suits them.
A fair amount of the loaned instruments show considerable wear and tear from years of use; the brass section left without luster, tarnished, worn, dented and dinged; the basses lined against the walls with scratches, chips and breaks; the large drums severely tattered around the heads.
Licht, on any given day can be seen mid-lecture, suturing a wind instrument so as to keep the class moving along without leaving a student out of the loop.
“It’s a spit valve,” says Licht with a calm smile. “I can fix it, but it’ll take some time,” she mutters while applying blue painter’s tape over the instrument’s newfound cavity.
“I just like to play the guitar becuase it makes me feel good,” says 12-year-old Esi Toetuu, who is beginning her second year of guitar instruction at Bohannon.
Toetuu says when she is confused or struggling with other academics, she’ll take a break to play some guitar. Upon returning to her original task, she feels more clarity and understanding of the subject matter.
Licht is quick to stress the constant struggle she expects to face year in and year out, as she understands the realities of tight budgets and the high position art and music programs occupy on the lists of to-be-guillotined expenditures presided over by board members and lawmakers.
“I always feel like the music program is in peril,” Licht says of the district program’s prospects. “I tell my parents when we start at the beginning of the school year, you know I have three jobs. My first job is to teach your children, my second job is to fundraise so that I am allowed to teach your children, and my third job is to fight to keep my job.”
The nearby San Leandro Unified School District (SLUSD), comparable in size to SLZUSD, has leftovers of a once more complete music program throughout its schools, as well.
One full hour of instrumental instruction was cut from fifth grade curriculum this year and the district reduced the number of music instructors on the payroll from nine to seven.
The “Keep Music Rockin’” foundation of San Leandro, headed by T.W. “Rick” Richards, and anchored by native celebrity Lenny Williams, contributes greatly to the instrument purchases and general fundraising for music in the local district.
Even still, SLUSD now relies on a rotating wheel of music discipline instruction that requires the hauling of instruments to and from various campuses, highlighting the difficulties of providing music programs in a harsh economic climate.
Despite the cuts to the elementary program, Pam Fobert, the SLZUSD Music Co-Chair, feels the fight is well worth it.
“There are some kids who come to school because of music,” she says confidently. “They come to school, especially the middle school, high school kids, who reason they are motivated to come to school because there is something more than common course standards during the course of their day.”
Fobert attributes the relative success of their programs to, first and foremost, the teachers in charge of the classes. The instructors, she explains, “gift” a genuine enthusiasm and appreciation for music to their students, who then bring that excitement home to their parents.
She also says the parents in the district are mindful of what their kids need and want, and, wanting to continue to see their children happy, support the teachers and the music through booster clubs.
Fobert is convinced the current district administration in San Lorenzo, including the superintendent and the school board, recognize how eradicating these programs will hurt children in their schools, and will find ways to continue circumventing further cuts.
“The programs are so successful at the middle school, high school level right now, that I really don’t feel nervous about it; I feel hopeful.”
This entry was published in The Pioneer Online on Thursday, October 4th, 2012 at 2:23 pm.