How to Save an Endangered Public-School String Program
A 5-point plan of action for parents, students, and school officials
This is the way a string program meets its end: not with a bang or a whimper, but a neat computer graphic posted on a school district’s website one recent morning. Money needed to be saved, said the Charleston (South Carolina) County school board, and a solution needed to be found. So, the budget problem was presented as a clip-art puzzle: a piece is taken away here, a piece is put back there, and the budget problem is solved.
Except that didn’t solve Sarah Fitzgerald’s problem.
“The string program was the only thing slated to be cut,” the teaching veteran and regional fine-arts program coordinator says.
Fitzgerald made a few calls, and within four hours of it being posted the clip-art puzzle had vanished. The threat to her program was quashed, too, but that took a little more time and work. Eventually, her efforts paid off when one of the school board members who had considered the budget cut stood in front of a student orchestra and pledged to “never vote” to end a music program. A proud school superintendent was present, as was a local TV news crew to capture the drama.
This isn’t the first time a string program has come close to oblivion and it certainly won’t be the last. The problem varies from state to state, from district to district; some schools have grants to play with, some don’t. But whether a string program survives relies heavily on its most powerful allies: parents.
It’s the parents who have the biggest stake in their children’s music education. They shell out the cash for instruments, shuttle the kids to complimentary lessons, and spend time attending concerts and recitals. It’s also parents who hold sway over a school board, whether they know it or not. After all, it’s the parents who vote members in or out, so you can be sure who’s got their ears.
If your school’s string program is on the chopping block, here’s what you can do to save it.
1. Be Organized
Cellist Jeffrey Solow, chair of instrumental studies at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance and president of the American String Teachers Association, explains that no fight to save a program fails if two forces are in play: a mobilized group of parents and a united front of all fine-arts teachers. “There needs to be a network of parents ready to roll,” Solow says.
As soon as a vote to cut a program is announced or appears on a school board agenda, a coalition of parents and students needs to go into action by preparing to appear before the board and organizing a “media blitzkrieg” akin to Fitzgerald’s. Consider using an E-mail or phone tree to get the word out.
2. Be Vocal
Letter-writing campaigns to school boards, principals, and elected officials—including mayors, city council members, and state legislators—can be effective if the authors make clear exactly what is at stake. Letters that say how much a music program “helped me succeed” have a definite impact on school board members’ decision making—don’t be shy about pointing out that studies show music programs help raise math and science scores. Call in the cavalry on a national level: Solow and other members of ASTA frequently pen letters to nationally elected school boards and officials when contacted by music teachers and parents in need.
Prior to votes, invite school board members and administrators to concerts—and if this doesn’t work, bring the music to them. Stage an impromptu concert outside a meeting and invite reporters to come out and see how many students will have to lay down their instruments if a program is cut.
3. Be United
Often, advocates say, fine-arts teachers fall victim to “divide and conquer” techniques. For example, a school board will mark a string program for a cut, and band, chorus, and visual arts teachers breathe a sigh of relief and think, “at least it wasn’t me.” But when any music or visual arts program is cut, it’s the fine-arts taking a blow, and who knows what program will be next. “It’s not band versus chorus versus orchestra,” Solow says. “It’s everyone. Everyone has to get together to help each other.”
4. Be Persuasive
A school board’s main function is monetary—it makes sure the books are balanced. Helping the members do their job is as simple as pointing out that, aside from study hall, music programs are the most cost-effective program in public schools.
Do the math: a music teacher can have 50, 60, or 70 students in a band room at one time. If that teacher goes, then one, two, or even three extra math, science, or English teachers are needed to handle the students who suddenly have a free period. “Nobody has that many kids in a classroom,” says Loretta McNulty, a string specialist in the Lafayette and Mt. Diablo school districts of Northern California as well as member-at-large of the California Chapter of ASTA.
Saving a music program boils down to the language every school board speaks: dollars and cents. More students in places other than music means more money will be needed to accommodate that crowd. Dr. John Benham, who has made advocacy his calling for more than 30 years and presides over the Music in World Cultures consultation and outreach service, explains that the case is clear: “It’s reverse economics,” Benham says. “The facts are there: two or three years down the road, after cutting music, a school district is spending more money.”
5. Be Vigilant
In difficult times, don’t lose heart. Even if a school board votes to cut a program twice in February or March, it’s not over until budget season is over. This means advocates have until May or June to change the money-holders’ minds. “It’s never a done deal, not until the last school board meeting of the year,” Solow says. “Until then, they can always put it back.”