Schools work to keep arts alive

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UNIONTOWN, Pennsylvania — In the Carmichaels Area School District music still thrives, but keeping music and arts alive in public education takes ongoing ingenuity as districts strive to strike an educational-financial balance.

Jason Baily, who serves as director of bands in Carmichaels, said school districts across the commonwealth face tough choices.

"Music is greatly adored at Carmichaels, but like every district in the state, we have been forced to make difficult decisions. I know that when an administrator asks for a budgetary concession, he or she is asking it as a last resort," said Baily, who has taught grades 5-12 in the district for 11 years.

Carmichaels music program currently offers an elementary instrumental program, including concert band, as well as an elementary choir; junior high band and chorus as well as senior high band and chorus as student electives.

The music program at Carmichaels is very popular, including sometimes 30 to 40 percent of the student body in the program, depending on overall class size," said Baily.

In Brownsville Area School District due to funding cuts, the district has gone from four music teachers to two, instrumental classes are offered to students in grades 4 and 5 and at the middle school. Music electives are offered to high school students but band and choir have been eliminated.

Rachel Andler-McCloy, curriculum coordinator in Brownsville, explains that band exists as an extracurricular activity.

"Keeping consistency is difficult as we are replacing band directors each year due to them accepting full time positions within the school districts," she said.

Tricia Rohlf, a guidance counselor in the district who serves as the director of the high school's spring musical, said the smaller music program impacts performing arts.

"Because there is no active choir program I have to teach students to sing and supplement their knowledge of music," Rohlf said.

Rohlf said she fears the impact that losing music and art instruction will have in education.

"Arts in schools connects the kids. A group of kids that are creative and need an outlet and a way to express themselves," she said.

Adding to the struggles, according to school officials, curriculum changes due to Common Core have forced districts to restructure class schedules in order to devote more time to English and math especially at the middle school level, in order to better prepare students for standardized testing. This means less time is available for electives like art and music, leaving districts juggling schedules to adhere to the Pennsylvania School Code, which states students should receive arts and music courses, though it is not mandated.

Many districts, like Brownsville, have eliminated elementary art instruction on a regular basis, replacing it with art projects that supplement core subjects.

PSEA (Pennsylvania State Education Association) notes the elimination of arts and music classes in public schools is both counterintuitive and detrimental.

"At a time of cuts to school funding and increased emphasis on student achievement and standardized test scores, the elimination of arts and music classes in public schools is detrimental to student progress," said Wythe Keever, PSEA assistant director of communications. "Research shows that arts and music classes, especially when integrated into other subjects like math, reading, and history, boost student achievement and test scores.

"Additional research by The National School Boards Association and Americans for the Arts found that young people enrolled in intensive arts programs are more likely to be recognized for school attendance, academic achievement, student government, creative writing, and math and science fairs," Keever added.

Laurel Highlands School District has been able to grow its arts programs giving music and art instruction to all elementary students and many electives in the arts to choose from for middle-high school students as well as state-of-the-art music and art facilities as a result of the recently completed renovation at Laurel Highlands High School.

"The music and art curriculum has evolved due to the advancements of 21st century technology," said district curriculum Director Randy Miller. "Several years ago, our art/music teachers received training at the intermediate unit using various instructional strategies with arts in education including using mini iPods. Professional development continues occur in both areas, and the advancements in technology is paving the way."

Mike DeFazio has taught art in the Laurel Highlands School District for 20 years and said the district's commitment to the arts has allowed for the additional staff in arts and music and many curriculum revisions.

"This has enabled our department to broaden the course offerings in our fine arts curriculum. To me this speaks volumes about our district's commitment to provide students with a well-rounded education, including access to and training in the fine arts," Defazio said. "At the high school level we are currently offering art 1, advanced mixed media, advanced painting and advanced sculpture and ceramics classes. All of the classes are electives for students and are generally full."

Getting creative

Arts and music educators tap into their innate creativity to keep students interested and active in programs in hopes of keeping those programs alive.

Baily expressed that keeping students involved in music selection increases their interest, while selecting music that crowds will find appealing and band directors can use for teaching, is part of a three-legged stool that creates success.

"All music has teachable aspects but this level of music is chosen to challenge students the most. All three levels are important to a successful band program and they are always changing. Music the students like now isn't the music we picked 10 years ago," he said

Arts programs often count on outside support to continue to prosper.

"I am constantly seeking grants and financial opportunities. One of my best options is my band boosters. They work tirelessly to make sure the students have what they need and to help with the program in any way I ask," Baily said.

In Brownsville, Andler-McCloy also notes the band's resilience is directly linked to the dedication of students and band boosters. Rholf said she relies on a strong community theater family to help her through the large annual musical productions.

From set pieces to costuming needs, Rohlf utilizes assistance from groups like Actors and Artists of Fayette County and Geyer Performing Arts Center in Scottdale. In addition, the show's cast "fundraises like crazy" she said in order to supplement the small budget the district can afford to offer. Her son, Jonathan, and daughter, Lexie, both theater majors in college, also assist her with music, direction and choreography.

"I'm thankful to Geyer and AAFC. We all want to see the arts programs thrive. It's challenging times economically. I'm hopeful when the economy turns around it will improve," said Rohlf.

Creative scheduling in Brownsville has permitted middle school students in two grade levels to receive a full semester of art instruction and the ability to offer additional art electives at the high school. This was achieved, according to Andler-McCloy, by eliminating common preparation period for all teachers and increasing overall instructional time.

DeFazio said the art department of Laurel Highlands has written and received numerous grants over the past 15 years, totaling well over $200,000 with grant funding coming from the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, the Benedum Foundation and other private sources.

"A particularly successful partnership had been with the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art. Through the Artist-in-Residence program administered by the Southern Alleghenies Museum our students have been able to study with a variety of visiting artists. The residencies have ranged from 10 to 60 days, with artists specializing in painting, printmaking, ceramics, sculpture, metalsmithing, puppetry, Native American art and performance art," DeFazio said.

Keeping a positive outlook

Educators remain steadfast the arts will remain relevant in school districts, although many times it's an uphill battle.

Baily explains, music is a proud tradition for the Carmichaels community.

"As I tell my students, we as a band must remain relevant in the public. It our honor to continue the tradition of bringing pride to the people of Carmichaels for years to come," Baily said.

The Laurel Highlands School District emphatically supports the music and art programs and will continue to do so, according to Miller.

"We realize the importance of art and music in the lives of students today and long into their future. The more we can expose students to the culture that has impacted our society the better prepared our students will be in their future," he said.

And even though programs struggle in districts like Brownsville, the passion and commitment of the students is a driving force behind keeping arts in public education, Rohlf said.

"What I see in education is a swinging pendulum. Right now the arts are having a hard time but I'm hopeful that pendulum will swing back in our favor," she said. "These kids are so passionate and creative and they deserve all we can offer them."

DeFazio agrees.

"Budgetary pressures come and go," he said. "Those of us who recognize the value of the arts need to be continual and outspoken advocates of the need for rigorous art and music education — our students are depending on it."


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