Education In Focus
by Amy Stone & David Lillard
The first in a series of reports on dialogues and issues pertaining to Clarke County Public Schools. In this dispatch, The Observer is merely laying out the issue and the dialogue it spurred among a group of parents and school administrators.
The homepage of the Clarke County Public School website has a photograph of marching band musicians poised to play. This seems to create an image of a school district committed to music and the arts. But to a group of Clarke County parents and music boosters, the image flies in the face of reality: On April 29 the School Board voted to eliminate the full-time band director position and jazz band class at Johnson Williams Middle School.
The day after the decision, a group of parents formed Save Clarke Music, in an effort to restore the cuts and, in general, support music education in Clarke County Public Schools. Since then, their petition has generated some 800 signatures, and a Facebook page has also generated considerable support.
School superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy says he and the administrative staff are sympathetic to middle-school students who want to study jazz, but that their hands are tied. Enrollment for the jazz band class, they say, has dropped below the number that justifies its offering. Cutting the class, by extension, reduces the justification for a position dedicated to the middle school band program.
No one disputes the enrollment figures; in fact, no one suggests the figures reflect a lack of student interest. The drop is due, in large part, to two issues: flat student population numbers countywide, and the increasing demands of the Virginia Standards of Learning, which dictate the subjects each student must master as core competencies.
As the State Department of Education has loaded up on required courses, students have fewer opportunities to take elective classes. “If you’re forced to take a class on balancing your checkbook,” said one parent, “you won’t have room in your schedule for electives.”
On May 28, after some research and several meetings together, the parents of SCM met with administration and staff to share some ideas they had come up with. They hoped the ideas might address the issues the schools are facing, offering some potential solutions that could meet the schools’ needs while restoring the cuts. One suggestion was to save the band position by developing a math pilot program, modeled on successful programs elsewhere, in which music instruction is used to offer a leg up in remedial math education.
The parents also suggested that the foreign language requirement in the middle school be dropped, and the classes be made elective, thereby opening up time on student schedules to allow for more elective opportunities. (The administration has issued a clarification that foreign language studies are, indeed, elective, but the ruling came too late to impact class offerings for autumn 2013, as students have already enrolled in their classes.)
SCM presented these ideas, along with others, to Murphy and the other attendees at the May 28 meeting. After a very productive and positive 2-hour meeting, both sides left with staff agreeing to review and consider the options suggested by SCM.
A complete outline of the ideas presented during that meeting can be found at the following link: http://tinyurl.com/lqurndk.
A week and a half after the meeting, Dr. Murphy’s response came in a letter, dated June 5. He concluded his letter by stating, “After a thorough review of our educational program and the needs of our students and school division, we arrive at the same conclusion that we did on April 29, 2013. Enrollment for the 2013–2014 school year does not warrant the addition of a 1.0 FTE music educator. We will continue to offer maximum support to impacted employees to assist them in their future success.”
“We look forward,” he continued, “to additional dialog regarding the importance of a comprehensive K-12 educational program and our ability to not only provide, but expand, those same high quality program offerings in the Clarke County Public Schools.”
The complete letter can be seen at http://tinyurl.com/muapvph.
Accounts from parents and supporters of Save Clarke Music reflect disappointment by the response from the superintendent. They say the letter did not address or validate any of their suggestions. But they vow to continue the battle, because as they see it, it is “just the beginning of a process of the erosion of the band and music program along with other electives that the community holds dear,” as one parent put it. They say that the bigger picture and the ultimate battle will lead to the state level.
In the end, though, at least for the 2013–14 school year, county schools also will be reduced to one band director serving the entire county system.
For information or to read the petition, visit tinyurl.com/SaveClarkeMusic or facebook.com/SaveClarkeMusic.