Music supporters: Cuts hit heart of program

Cutting fifth grade strings would hurt, supporters say. “It’s the foundation for everything that happens down the road, in high school . . . and beyond,” says Wichita schools fine arts director Shawn Chastain.
Cutting fifth grade strings would hurt, supporters say. “It’s the foundation for everything that happens down the road, in high school . . . and beyond,” says Wichita schools fine arts director Shawn Chastain. File photo

Those who support instrumental music in Wichita schools say proposed budget cuts would devastate a part of the program that matters most — its earliest years.

School officials last week presented a plan to eliminate a program that teaches about 1,100 fifth-graders how to play violins, violas and cellos. They also proposed cutting at least seven middle school band teachers.

Together, the cuts would save about $860,000 a year, officials said. They are part of $30 million in cuts that superintendent John Allison has proposed to make up for a shortfall in state and federal education money.

Teachers say the cuts could leave some middle schools with huge beginning band classes — up to 75 students or more with one teacher. That means students wouldn't get much individualized instruction when they're first learning to play.

And that, supporters say, could frustrate children and prompt many to give up.

"That beginning program is so crucial," said Shawn Chastain, director of fine arts for the Wichita district. "It's the foundation for everything that happens down the road, with high school bands and orchestras and beyond."

Fifth- and sixth-grade teachers "allow that initial class size to be viable," Chastain said.

A Wichita school district policy says beginning band and orchestra classes "should be at a level that facilitates instruction." According to policy guidelines, beginner strings classes should have no more than 16 students per teacher; beginner band should have no more than 25.

Chastain said classes are larger than that already, especially at middle schools such as Truesdell, Wilbur and Robinson, which have popular band and orchestra programs. If the cuts are approved, "class size will be significantly affected," he said.

"That's part of what we're looking at right now," Chastain said. "We want to find any way we can to keep it manageable, especially in those early years."

Parents and other local advocates of fine arts are starting to rally behind the school programs. They say the programs are especially important in districts like Wichita, which has a high percentage of poor children.

"For a lot of families, buying an instrument isn't an option," said Rod Nelson, whose sons play viola and cello. "Neither is private instruction. Not everyone can afford private lessons.

"That's the great thing about the fifth-grade strings program: It allows kids to be introduced to strings without the risk right away."

Nelson recently e-mailed board members asking them to keep the fifth-grade strings program. The board will pass its final budget this summer.

"The superintendent provided his cuts, but what he didn't say is, 'OK, here's some alternatives, some other things to consider,' " Nelson said.

"I'm hoping maybe there's some middle ground."

Nelson's oldest son, Logan, plays viola in the Robinson Middle School orchestra, which recently was accepted to play at a prestigious music conference in Chicago. He plays for the Wichita Youth Symphony and hopes to become a film composer.

Logan's brother, Benjamin, plays cello at Robinson. His sister, Brooklyn, a fourth-grader at Buckner Performing Arts Magnet Elementary, had hoped to start playing a stringed instrument next year.

"I'm not sure any of our kids would have been willing to jump into orchestra at the middle school level without having that introduction in the fifth grade," Nelson said.

He urged board members to look for alternatives, such as raising the instrument rental fee, changing the program to one semester instead of two or limiting it to schools where it has been most popular.

Chastain, the fine-arts director, said Wichita's band and orchestra programs have "a long history of excellence" that he hopes isn't affected by budget concerns.

"These large classes are a credit to what we have — a strong program, a very supportive community, excellent recruiting, access to instruments and a fabulous teaching staff," he said. "We want that to continue."

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