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This post is a radical departure from my usual posts. Just as I am an advocate for music therapy, I try to be an advocate for other issues related to my life. One of those areas is education. This is an open letter regarding the state of music education in the Hays, KS public schools (USD 489). It will be (or has been) shared with members of the School Board and Administration. Highlights from this letter will be (have been) shared with the “Hays Daily News” and parents of in the district. These opinions are my own.

Dear Hays community members,

The quality of teaching in U.S.D. 489 has been consistently high as evidenced in part by outstanding student performance on State assessments and achievements which have resulted in our students’ recognition as National Merit finalists.  This is partially attributable to qualified, well trained teachers at all levels and areas of academia whose positions are now at risk with the State of Kansas funding decrease to the school districts.

Our School Board and administrators have to make difficult decisions to address a budgetary shortfall of $1.8 million. One way they have elected to meet this decline is not to replace those teachers retiring or resigning from their employment.  As a community member and parent of a Hays High student, I see the board’s strategy as one that will negatively impact our students, particularly in the area of music.

Decreasing the number of teachers through attrition allows for employment stability for many. However, it creates inconsistent increases in class size across the district between schools and across programs. An increase in class size results in less personal attention to students, heightens the potential for declining test scores, especially with at-risk students, and places a burden on faculty contemplating retirement as to the impact on students and on remaining staff.  At the elementary level, loss through attrition of elective faculty (music, PE, art, computer and library specialists) will result in students no longer receiving the quality and quantity provided by these staff members. In addition, it will directly impact student instructional time when classroom teachers are planning.

The quality of the music faculty in U.S.D. 489 has been evident in the number of students who choose to participate in music activities in their respective schools, perform in District and State ensembles, receive high ratings at State Festivals, and accept invitations to perform at various venues.   Music education, like education in every academic area, begins at the elementary level; concepts and skills are introduced and understanding and appreciation are nurtured and developed as the student matures.  Quality attracts student participation, particularly in the arts. When students are exposed to quality instruction and are receptive to it, they will work with both great discipline and great care to share together the achievements of the individual and group.

The issue of staffing through attrition is particularly evident within the music department. Last year a middle school band director retired. The remaining two directors were asked to shoulder the added load for one year.  One of them now has less than the allocated 300 minutes planning time per week – this is after the combining of seventh and eighth grade bands at Felten. Now, both a full-time and a part-time elementary music teacher have announced their retirement at the end of the current year. This will result in the need for twenty-eight classes to be covered by the remaining music faculty in the district assuming there are no further losses.  In the course of two years, there will 14% less qualified people providing music instruction to approximately 62% of the district’s students.

Each week, twenty of the district’s total fourth and fifth grade strings classes (10 hours) meet outside the regular school day. Cutting of the fourth grade string program has been proposed so instructional time could transfer to the elementary schools general music classes. This would result in only five additional hours for general music assuming the teacher schedules could be restructured for availability during the school day. And, the loss of a year of training will decrease the level of string student musicianship unless contact can be increased in frequency beginning at fifth grade.

To put this in perspective, the retiring Roosevelt music teacher sees nineteen classes for 30 minutes each twice a week. An extra chorus is offered before school for 25 minutes twice each week.  Annual performances include three major programs each year along with performances by the chorus each semester.  The retiring O’Loughlin teacher has twenty-seven half hour classes each week and assists with the first grade musical. Under the current proposal, elementary music instructional time will be reduced within the district a minimum of 25%. The elementary choirs and annual programs will greatly decrease or cease.

Increasing the student numbers in elementary and middle school general music classes is not feasible as this could exceed most classroom capacities while also decreasing effective teaching. For example, the music room at Felten has a fire safety allotment for approximately 50 students. I imagine there are similar issues in most of the elementary music classrooms. Moving such classes to gyms or other large spaces is not educationally sound for the same reasons you wouldn’t hold reading or math classes in mass in those spaces. Again, lower level ability to provide quality instruction directly affects the quality of upper level groups.

To see how other districts have responded to previous cuts in music, we need only look to our neighbor districts of Russell and Ellis. Both districts elected to decrease positions and increase loads on their music teachers. The quality and number of students participating in music classes and ensembles declined. Russell returned to separate vocal and instrumental instruction three years ago. Ellis is in the process of adding back their half-time vocal position.

Some might propose having teachers teach out of field or level of certification.  A teaching certificate or license enables the teacher to enter the field; it does not guarantee quality instruction.  Quality teaching is not ensured by successfully completing an undergraduate degree, fulfilling an endorsement requirement, passing a content area test score, or taking additional coursework in the summer. Quality teaching occurs when a teacher is able to: identify appropriate learning goals; assess the student needs; identify instructional objectives, analyze materials; select teaching/learning strategies that are shown to be effective; and implement an appropriately-designed learning environment.  A qualified teacher who is also a quality teacher is the one devoted to the student and the subject, realizing that both require much devotion and dedication.  Quality takes time.  Any retiring educator, who has provided quality instruction to countless numbers of children and youth, is professionally acknowledged and personally affirmed when their teaching position is maintained and the search for a candidate capable of providing their students with the necessary expertise, devotion, and dedication is of paramount importance in hiring decisions.

Some might propose cutting programs from our offerings, a risk that no longer affords children an opportunity to fully explore and learn about their world and themselves. Such a decision causes those with strong career aspirations or interest in areas cut to question whether they are receiving an appropriate education. Those children without financial means to further their interests outside of school may be most at risk with such cuts.

The students of USD 489 deserve and require the best quality education we can provide. As adults, it is our duty to discern how to do this in a fair and equitable manner while meeting the national and state requirements and considering the interests and needs of our students.

Given the need for a quick resolution, I respectfully request that the school board and Superintendent Roth:

  • Charge the district principals with reporting staff needs for appropriate educational scheduling using current enrollment projects for the 2011-12 school year. This should include identifying the number of FTE required per area and level.
  • Remove the duties outside instructional time from the music faculty so time can be allocated strictly for music education.
  • Staff our classrooms according to these needs keeping teachers within their areas of training and certification.
  • Create a task force representative of grade levels and interests when moving forward with restructuring of our classrooms amongst facilities.

Of the community, I request that you:

  • Attend the music programs being presented by the schools throughout our community. This allows you to experience the quality of our programs while acknowledging the efforts put forth by the students.  Thank our music teachers for their efforts.
  • Support our Principals, School Board, and Superintendent in their efforts to appropriately meet our student needs.
  • Work with our legislators and governor to provide sources of adequate funding for our schools.
  • Offer to serve on committees, councils, and booster groups within our school. Consider volunteering within our schools.
  • Ask children you know about their educational experiences.  Be an informed voter and taxpayer.

Education is everyone’s business. We are preparing our youth to be creative, productive members of a world society.  Let’s all step up and offer our best to our youth.

Sincerely,

JoAnn Jordan