Elementary band programs hitting low notes

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By Mallory Bilger

HEBRON ESTATES - Many of Bullitt county’s public elementary schools are having to face some tough music next year.

Several schools are deciding not to offer beginning band as state accountability testing standards change and growing elementary schools are faced with tough scheduling decisions.

Bullitt County’s elementary schools have traditionally offered beginning band at the fifth grade level. Band was one exploratory course that students could participate in to expand their knowledge of the arts and humanities.

But because elementary schools are held accountable for laying the foundation for a student’s future educational success, some site-based decision making councils are finding that band excludes many students that could benefit from more generalized music courses.

Elementary schools planning to eliminate fifth grade band programs next year currently include Mount Washington Elementary, Lebanon Junction Elementary and Overdale Elementary.

Freedom Elementary School’s SBDM is strongly considering eliminating its band program so it can change the direction of its arts and humanities courses to reach more students.

Currently Brooks Elementary plans to offer band next year but its schedule has yet to be finalized.

Freedom principal Marlin Gregg said that what most parents don’t realize is when a child joins band at the fifth grade level, that student is usually pulled out of another class or away from another concentration area for practice.

He said Freedom currently can only offer band twice a week for 45 minutes each class, and many students had dropped out because of frustration.

“Due to scheduling our other content areas, our band really got pulled and tugged this year,” Gregg said. “It showed in our performances. This year we didn’t get to do band justice.”

Some parents are concerned about children not having the opportunity to take fifth grade band, as well as how the elimination of fifth grade band programs will affect the middle and high school band programs.

“Many of us are very bothered by them not having a band still in place at Freedom,” said Chuck Stewart via e-mail.

Stewart is a parent of a North Bullitt High School band member.

“Something that is so good, that had it’s foundation begun at Freedom, is about to be taken away, and with that, set up destroying the high quality of the band at the High school level,” he said.

Mount Washington Elementary principal Terri Lewis said her school was faced with much of the same issues that Freedom faces.

“We are looking at the similar or the same thing, number one, due to the content we have to cover. With the enrichment program of band, we just don’t have time during the day to get it all in. Kids were not getting the amount of instruction they needed to be successful,” Lewis said.

Gregg shared Lewis’ opinion and said many children were frustrated that they weren’t progressing quickly on their instruments because of a lack of practice time.

Lewis said MWES students will still get general music education. MWES plans to expand its choral program as well as its general arts and humanities offerings to include more students.

“We’re trying to make it a more positive thing. With our choral music, everyone can participate in that,” she said.

Gregg said Freedom’s SBDM is looking for ways to include more students in the arts and humanities courses that will integrate music, theatre, dance and more. Students would still have the opportunity to learn to play an instrument, such as a recorder or guitar. He said eliminating the band program may allow the school to offer competitive chorus, which generally involves more students.

If Freedom was to offer band next year, Gregg said it would most likely only be for 45 minutes one time a week.

“If you don’t do it right, then there’s no sense in doing it,” he said.

Gregg said, like many other administrators, he doesn’t want to drop the band program. However, his priority must be all the children, not just a few.

“In public education we have to try and educate the masses,” he said. “We really don’t want to drop it.

“(The SBDM) will make a decision as a council that will reflect what’s best for all Freedom’s kids and not just a select few.”

Parent Janet White, whose daughters were in fifth grade band at Freedom, said she was concerned about how the middle and high school bands will be affected by the elimination of elementary band programs.

“It saddens me to know the middle and high school programs will be hurt dramatically by the changes,” she said.

However, many music professionals, although not in support of eliminating band at any level, claim that the absence of fifth grade band won’t affect the middle and high school programs as severely as some parents expect it will.

Bullitt East High School band director Morris Dean Jasper has directed bands in the county at both the middle and high school levels. He said he doesn’t want to see any band programs eliminated, but admitted that for many directors, sixth grade band is much like starting over with the children.

“The whole concept of having beginning band in middle school isn’t a bad thing. The validity and the success of the fifth grade band depends completely on the support of the administration of the school,” Jasper said.

Dr. John Stroube, Kentucky Music Educators Association executive director, said the majority of Kentucky’s public schools offer beginning band at the sixth grade level.

He said that most but not all fifth graders are physiologically ready for the demands to play a wind instrument.

“The debate is do you go ahead and offer it when some kids are a little smaller and not quite as developed or do you wait,” Stroube said.

He added that if fifth grade band participants are only practicing twice a week, then they may fail to retain what they learn.

“By the end of the year they may not have not progressed particularly far,” Stroube said.

And that point, Jasper said, is the problem of offering band in elementary school. He said a quality elementary band program can be a wonderful opportunity for children to get involved early. But if done incorrectly, it can cause kids to quit early.

He said budgets and required curriculum often stifle programs that could otherwise be successful.

“One music teacher per elementary and middle school is one of the most ludicrous things. If the county is going to be committed to music education, they must have more teachers,” he said.

And it doesn’t look like that is going to be happening any time soon. Many of the county’s elementary schools will only have their music teachers for half the day next year, making for a music education scheduling nightmare.

Principals argue that the number of teachers and what they teach is driven by enrollment and state standards. Unless those standards change, there will continue to be disagreements about how and when to offer exploratory programs like music education.

“Teachers have been told to teach toward a few meaningless questions on the CATS test. What (teachers) have been held accountable to do is not authentic music teaching at all.

“With the disappearing of the CATS testing and the program review for arts programs, this may result in something of a return to sanity and robust (music) programs by letting teachers do what’s really going to help kids most,” Stroube said.