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."
Faust would not say who the teachers were, or where they taught. But she said that the sudden change meant that she couldn't even talk to her daughter's music teacher at Talbott Springs.
"That's one of the things that absolutely shocked me," she said. "We're not living in a dictatorship. ... Most people are upset. Why are they doing us and not telling us? What happened if we didn't find this out? It would have been a done deal and put on top of us. That's not how things are done in Howard County."
Amani-Dove, of the school system, said there has been "no effort to hide things" from the public.
"I don't think there's been any coercion," she said. "That sounds very conspiratorial."
In an email sent to music staff, the district's instructional facilitator of music, Robert White, addressed the concerns and said that "whenever there is something new or there is a change, we understand there will be anxiety and concern; however, we have a long history in our county of addressing any issues in a positive, collaborative manner."
White said the school system will continue working with staff "to plan for the best possible experiences for all of our students."
"What I'm asking all of you to do at this time is to continue the wonderful work you do with the students and reassure your community that the music program continues to be a vital component of the total school program," White wrote.
Drafting school schedules like the one under scrutiny at Ducketts Lane and proposed for the other five schools is "an administrative function," Amani-Dove said. Such functions are undertaken at the superintendent's discretion, she said. The leadership at Ducketts Lane may adjust the schedule next year, and Amani-Dove said principals at the other schools would be "working collaboratively with their community" to establish a schedule.
Because schedule decisions are made administratively, the departmentalization model did not go before the board, Amani-Dove said. The board did approve $1.5 million in Superintendent Renee Foose's proposed operating budget for the music program at the five affected schools. All of those schools are classified as Title I, meaning they are geared toward providing opportunities for disadvantaged student populations.
Amani-Dove said the school board approves the curriculum "holistically" when it votes on a list of instructional materials used in classrooms every year.
Furthermore, Amani-Dove said, the entire elementary school model at Ducketts Lane, and proposed for the other five schools, was devised as a result of community input — not a lack of it.
"What we're doing is based entirely on input we've received through the strategic planning process," she said.
Shortly after Foose was appointed superintendent in summer 2012, she embarked on an extensive series of Listen and Learn forums and focus groups, gathering input from PTAs, teachers, students and community members before unveiling a new strategic plan for the school system last year: Vision 2018.
"We collected feedback from more than 2,400 people in that process, hearing from the community what's working and what's not, and what people want to see in their schools," Amani-Dove said. "As a result of that input, the goals, the outcomes, the strategies, the initiatives — and the elementary school model — is an outgrowth of that process. We did ask the community for input, and this is in response to that input."
Ultimately, Amani-Dove said, the school system has to create an equitable program across the board, and do what's in the best interest of every student.
"The community speaks, and it doesn't always have a united voice," Amani-Dove said. "Some groups speak more passionately, more loudly, in more venues than others. The role of the school system is to make decisions that are in the best interests of all kids, not just a particular group of kids who have a very active advocacy group behind them. Advocacy groups have a very important role, but as decisions are made about the instructional program and scheduling, we can't just look at what's in the best interest of some, but all."