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District music programs in need of aid

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday March 14, 2001

At a time when the Berkeley School Board is struggling to come up with money to protect programs from cuts, music education advocates say the district’s music programs are in sore need of additional support. 

The Berkeley Unified School District’s music programs were once the envy of the Bay Area. The Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble is still considered one of the best high school bands in the country. It tours Europe or Japan every year and regularly plays at the prestigious Monterey Jazz Festival.  

But other BUSD music programs suffer from a lack of resources, leadership and overall organization, a number of music advocates said Tuesday. 

“Berkeley used to be renowned for its music program and it still is in some ways,” said Karen McKie, a member of a Instrumental Music Committee for the district and former Parent Coordinator for the BHS Jazz Ensemble. “But we cannot get the consistent support we need for this program (from the school board). 

“We need to know that they understand the history of it, that they understand the importance of it, and that they are committed to building this program,” McKie said. “They need to say to the community at large, ‘We are building this. This is a community value.’” 

At the heart of critics’ complaints is the idea that too few music teachers are spread across too many schools, and that no full-time coordinator oversees the program to set standards and make sure they are met. 

“That students can get out of the music program and not know the difference between an oboe and a saxophone – this is unusual in the civilized world,” said Kevin A. Madden, education director at the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. 

“We really need to think about giving this program the things its needs to be successful,” Madden said. “There needs to be a vision shared by music teachers. Kids need to have something to shoot for.” 

The district is not to blame for the state of music programs, Madden and others said. Many music programs across California have been decimated since Proposition 13 drastically cut state funding for schools in 1978. 

BUSD public information officer Karen Sarlo said Berkeley music programs have faired better than most. The district offers instrumental and vocal music instruction to all fourth and fifth graders two days a week. In middle schools (grades six through eight) and high school students can participate in a choir, orchestra or jazz band by taking the appropriate music elective. 

Much of the program’s $650,000 budget comes from money earmarked for enrichment programs in the Berkeley Public Schools Educational Excellence Project tax measure, approved overwhelmingly by Berkeley voters in 1994, Sarlo said. 

But McKie said the music program has developed new needs since the measure passed that can only be met by pouring more money into the programs.  

Berkeley schools were reconfigured in 1995. Where there were once K-3 schools, 4-6 schools, and 7-8 grade junior highs there are now K-5 schools and 6-8 grade middle schools. In practice this means the district’s 17 music teachers for grades four through eight are spread across far more schools than they were in the past. To visit the district’s 11 elementary schools and three middle schools many teachers must hit three or more schools in a single day. 

The music program needs more money, more staff and more dedicated space to operate more effectively, said Theresa Saunders, part-time coordinator for the district’s music programs today – when she can find time away from her duties as principal of Jefferson Elementary School. 

“There needs to be a real strategic plan for how the program can move from what it is to what it needs to be,” Saunders said. “Music is not a frill. It is one of the essential things that kids need to know and experience to be whole, healthy people.  

“There’s nothing else in the world like it.”  

Saunders said the music program’s long history in the district, and the fact that it is offered to students at all grade levels in some form, makes it an ideal place for the district to invest more money in arts education. 

“We don’t have arts, dance or visual arts at all grade levels,” Saunders said. “This is what we have.” 

Faced with an estimated $5 million budget deficit for next year, it may come as no surprise that directing additional funding to music is not a top priority for the Berkeley School Board. But board Vice President Shirley Issel said the board recognizes the need. 

“I think it’s widely agreed...that this program needs a director and that its not what we want it to be,” Issel said. “I’m very hopeful that we’ll find the money. I haven’t heard anyone close the door on it.”