Published Online: March 1, 2010

Ind. Schools Fear Budget Cuts Spell Sour Note for Music

The third-graders sat in a circle of chairs, barely able to resist the urge to touch the instruments sitting nearby.

The drums were made of large trash cans or bright orange five-gallon buckets reinforced with silver duct tape. But the students didn't care. It was percussion day, and they were ready to make some music.

"We try to get creative with limited funding," said Tricia Clark, the music teacher at Theodore Potter School 74 in the Indianapolis Public Schools system, the state's largest — and one of its poorest.

But music could wind up on the chopping block at districts across Indiana as they scramble to trim a total of $300 million from their spending to comply with cuts ordered by Gov. Mitch Daniels. School officials are taking a hard look at staffing, benefits and programs as they try to meet the mandate.

Administrators who have already cut budgets to the bone are now considering eliminating librarians and teachers in specialty areas. The Monroe County Community School Corp. voted to eliminate its elementary strings program, which feeds into the Hoosier Youth Philharmonic. The Tippecanoe School Corp. decided this week to cut half of its elementary art, music and physical education teachers to close a portion of a $7.8 million shortfall.

Many say eliminating music would reduce students' creative outlets at a time when their minds are most malleable. A Facebook page called "Do Not Cut Music From Indiana Schools" had nearly 8,000 fans Friday. The page has gained about a thousand fans each day since Monday.

"We're going to give them a very lopsided curriculum," said Rusty Briel, executive director of the Indiana State School Music Association. Music instruction, he said, is "one of few areas within a school curriculum that utilizes left- and right-brain learning activities at the same time. ... It has such profound and positive effects upon the total learning structure for the child."

Clark, who teaches music to children from kindergarten through sixth grade, agreed.

"There's so much research that supports how music affects a lot of other areas, like learning math and language," she said. "There was language touched on here, and math, with division of beat. There was mathematical thinking, musical thinking, kinesthetic body movement — it's kind of an all-in-one package that, in other subject areas, you just don't get all that."

IPS has been rebuilding its music education program for the last decade after former superintendent Esperanza Zendejas cut music and art teachers, said spokeswoman Mary Louise Bewley. Some schools just got instrumental music at the elementary level this year.

Now administrators are looking at modifying music programs, as well as art and physical education programs, she said.

Proposals include scaling back the number of times per week students have music classes and having music teachers cover programs at multiple schools, Bewley said. At School 74, students attend music class for half-hour sessions twice a week.

The district also is considering having music taught by classroom teachers rather than licensed music teachers in kindergarten and first grade, Bewley said.

Clark, who started percussion day by tapping a rhythm on her shoulder while singing a rhyme, says the changes would hurt the district's music program.

She said learning music is similar to learning a foreign language, with students picking it up faster the younger they are.

"At that age, their brains are adaptable to learning another language," Clark said. "Music, in a sense, is like learning another language. ... Teaching them the basics of music, like keeping steady beats and singing in pitch — to start that at age five is a huge difference. It's a lost opportunity that you never get back."

The Indiana Department of Education says art and music are important to a child's education but that school districts must decide what they can afford.

In Clark's class at School 74, a Spanish-immersion program where students learn Spanish starting in kindergarten, thoughts of cuts were far from her students' minds.

"The thing I like about music class is the percussion. I usually always look forward to music," said Rodrigo Tenorio, 9.

Clark, a music educator for 12 years, moved around the room, squatting low and whispering to illustrate dynamics. She stood on her tiptoes and wiggled her fingers as she shouted "RUMBLE!" The excited students burst into a frenzy of freestyle banging, clanging and shaking of instruments.

Amid the cacophony, Clark's thoughts were clear.

"I think it would be a tragedy to take it away," she said.

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