Dozens turned out to support the current elementary music program, and to raise concern about proposed changes at the Board of Education meeting Thursday, March 13. (Photo by Sara Toth / March 17, 2014)

If it's not broke, don't fix it. That's the message parents are trying to send the Howard County Board of Education regarding the public school system's music program.

Specifically, concerns have been raised that the practice of small group instruction for students playing similar instruments will be phased out. The small groups are referred to as "sectionals" or "pull-outs."

"Elementary school music is the foundation for secondary programs, and this foundation requires a firm base and a strong support," said Bernadette Giroux, leader of the advocacy group Howard County Parents for School Music. "Instruction is best administered when sectionals involve a small number of students practicing on like instruments."

Prompting parental concern is a new organizational model at the new Ducketts Lane Elementary School in Elkridge. The model is expected to be used next year as part of a larger program for five schools in Columbia: Bryant Woods, Phelps Luck, Running Brook, Stevens Forest and Talbott Springs.

The organizational model, known as departmentalization establishes a schedule in which teachers focus on two subjects during a two-hour block. The teachers are responsible for fewer content areas than at other schools, focusing on language arts and social studies, or mathematics and science. The Ducketts Lane model — as will be the case with the five schools next year — also includes Spanish instruction for 25 minutes a day, in kindergarten through second grade.

As the protesting parents see it, the problem with the block schedule is that it cuts time from music classes and eliminates the sectionals. Rather than having the relatively personalized attention afforded by the small group instruction sectionals, instrumental music students are taught solely in large groups.

"Imagine teaching multiple languages to many students in one class," Giroux said.

Giroux's analogy isn't entirely applicable; schools spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said students learning like instruments continue to be taught together. For example, she said at Ducketts Lane all third grade violin students are in the same session.

Talbott Springs parent Ann Faust said having like instruments doesn't really matter if there are so many students it takes the entire class period to simply tune instruments.

Moreover, parents claim large groups are not a good way to learn music, expressing their displeasure during a school board meeting Thursday, March 13. Dozens of parents turned out wearing "concert attire," the black pants and white shirts usually worn by members of an orchestra.

At Ducketts Lane, students in kindergarten through second grade receive 45 minutes a week of general music — 15 minutes or 25 percent less than students at other schools who receive an hour per week. For students in third through fifth grade, if they play an instrument, they receive 30 minutes of general music a week, and an hour of instrumental instruction. If Ducketts Lane students don't play an instrument, they get 90 minutes of general music a week.

In other Howard County public elementary schools, students who play instruments receive an hour a week of general music, and their instrumental instruction comes in two 30-minute small classes, or "sectionals." That means for an hour a week, students leave other classes to learn their instruments.

The Ducketts Lane model still has students learning their instruments for an hour a week, but in larger groups than at other schools. At Ducketts Lane, however 80 percent of students in third through fifth grade play instruments, compared to 55 to 60 percent of students at other schools.

Faust, the parent from Talbott Springs Elementary, started an online petition last month calling for any changes to the elementary music program to be publicly developed and vetted. At the beginning of this week, the petition had more than 3,300 signatures.

"Howard County student musicians are truly remarkable at the highest levels," said Tom Jacobs, a member of Howard County Parents for School Music. Speaking at the school board meeting Thursday, he said, "Our system works, and our teachers are remarkable. ... Here's what happens: [student musicians] graduate at higher rates than non-musicians. They're less likely to be involved in drugs, and score higher than non-musicians on STEM tests. ... We must slow down the decision-making process in regard to these changes."

Mike Hossum, a parent of students at Stevens Forest Elementary and Oakland Mills Middle, said the good news is the school system has everything it needs to continue this success in place already.

"The small class size necessary for great music instruction does not fit in the block schedule model," he told the school board Thursday, adding, "Please remember the arts rarely fit nicely into a box. That is the point of the arts: to allow us to experience the world in a new light, and be a free and open outlet for creative expression."

A question of transparency

Faust also said she is concerned the changes to the music program are being presented without much, or any, parental involvement.

Faust said she was approached by a music teacher in February with the news the music program could be changing. Within a week, it "snowballed," she said, with more and more teachers contacting her. The communications quickly ceased, she said, when "the educators were warned not to talk to the parents about any of these changes, and [they were told] that going against this warning could leave their jobs in jeopardy."