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District 204 schools to delay instrument music program

Updated: January 12, 2014 6:25AM

Students will have to wait until middle school before first participating in a beginning band or orchestra program in Indian Prairie School District 204.

On Monday, the school district’s music coordinator and music department leaders presented the Board of Education with a different model for teaching music that they say will improve the district’s music program.

The new plan, which will begin in the 2014-15 school year, is based on a study of the district’s music program over the past two years.

Under the new system, bands and orchestra programs for fifth-graders would be eliminated in favor of a plan where students in sixth grade would receive daily instrument instruction from the start of the school year.

William Jastrow, District 204 music coordinator, said consistency is integral to music lessons because it not only helps students master skills and sustain the district’s high quality music program, but prevents kids from losing interest and dropping out of band and orchestra.

Currently, fifth-grade students receive instrument instruction one time per week in a large group and one time per week in a small group for technical lessons. Jastrow said that is not enough. By the time fifth-grade students get their instruments and have a few lessons under their belts, scheduling conflicts seem to arise. Students might lose a lesson because of a holiday or miss another lesson because the teacher is sick.

Jastrow said students need to pick up their instruments every day and interact with a teacher often to remain interested.

Because sixth-graders will be taught every day, just 25 daily lessons equates to 25 weeks of instruction at the fifth-grade level, according to Jastrow.

Not everyone is happy with removing band and orchestra at the elementary level.

Several parents, like Trudie Ranson, whose children attend Longwood Elementary, spoke against the plan. Ranson, who has taught music to students from kindergarten through college, cited studies that show the importance of music education at an early age. She said children who learn to play music have improved vocabulary and enhanced brain development compared to children who received no music education.

While Jastrow concurred that early exposure to music is invaluable, he said the current district music program is lacking.

“The three critical factors impacting the success of students and the strength of an elementary and/or middle school instrumental program are consistency of student attendance in music classes, appropriate student contact time and the quality of instruction,” Jastrow said.

Charles Staley Jr., chairman of the Fine Arts Department at Neuqua Valley High School, echoed Jastrow’s comments, adding that staffing and scheduling under the current system makes consistency difficult.

“You have to have daily guidance to be supremely successful,” he said.

Also, pulling students from class for music instruction often elicits a negative reaction from teachers and parents, Jastrow said.

Teachers see it as a potential threat to their assessments and parents perceive their children are missing something important.

Superintendent Kathryn Birkett said the demands on teachers will only increase as Common Core State Standards are enforced and teachers are evaluated on how they use their classroom time.

School board members Mark Rising and Maria Curry said they were disappointed with the proposed changes.

Rising said he wants to give more kids the opportunity to experience playing a musical instrument and does not see the planned changes doing that job.

“It seems to me that instead of fixing the wound, we are saying let’s chop off the arm,” he added.

Curry said she fears the district is creating disparity between families who can afford private lessons at the elementary level and those who must wait until middle school.

“That’s about the time when they decide to give up band and orchestra,” she said.

As in the past, the instrumental music faculty will hold information meetings in late August for all students and parents interested in starting the band or orchestra program.

“Those meetings will continue in August 2014 for fifth-grade families interested in participating in Prelude and enrolling in sixth-grade instrumental music,” Jastrow said.

The expanded hands-on introduction to musical instruments program, Prelude, will begin in January 2015. Students will enroll in either instrumental music or instrumental/vocal music combo by February.

Formal large ensemble and small group instruction will begin for sixth-graders on the first day of school 2015-16.

Jastrow said under consideration is an optional summer experience that would not involve instruments but would serve as a warm-up for the skills a musician needs to function within a band or orchestra under the direction of a conductor. That would could be offered as soon as June 2015.

Jastrow said the ultimate objective of the switch is to improve the music program.

“Grammys are a thing of the past. Let’s look for something higher,” he said.

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