2018-06-15 / Community

Back to basics for school music program

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Following kickback from residents and school board members alike, RSU 21 has reversed itself on a plan to eliminate its Grade 4 band program.

That proposal was initially submitted for a school board vote on March 5. Assistant Superintendent Phil Potenziano led an 11-member task force that worked over the six meetings between October and February to overhaul the district’s elementary school music curriculum, intending, he said, to make it “more equitable K through 5.”

“There has been a concern that kids are missing a lot of instructional time to go to band,” said Superintendent Katie Hawes at the time the proposal was submitted. “Teachers have been very frustrated that they miss sections of kids throughout that fourth-grade time, which has been very challenging for them, not having a full class and having kids coming and going the whole time.”

Potenziano added that not all district schools handle band in the same way.

Mildred L. Day Elementary School in Arundel, for instance, offered its band practice before school, rather than during the day, making the program available only to students who could get to school early. Meanwhile, a full chorus program was offered only at Kennebunk Elementary School.

Although Potenziano said the task force had not reached a consensus, the plan presented to the school board called for introducing all students to reading sheet music in Grade 3, largely through teaching them how to play the recorder, which the district would provide to all students. Then, all students would get a regular block of music instruction in Grade 4, during which time they would have an opportunity to experiment with a variety of instruments, rather than join the the band only of they chose to do so and learning to become proficient on a single item. Then, Grade 5 band would have continue as usual, for those students who elected to continue.

“Yes, it’s a change, but it’s one that some feel is an expansion of opportunity for all kids,” Hawes said at the time.

The change saw enough resistance at that March 5 session that director Maureen King withdrew her second to the motion for approval, asking that the board be given time to more fully consider the proposal.

But by the time the next school board meeting rolled around, Kennebunk resident and longtime band booster Miriam Whitehouse had submitted a petition with 288 signatures hoping to stave off the change.

“It worries me to see the music program being eroded,” Whitehouse said. “It makes me wonder if fifth-grade band is going to be the next to go.”

“This district has had a very robust music program for years and years. It’s something we’re really been proud of,” Whitehouse said.

“It makes me sad to hear that kids are not coming out of fourth grade able to play well, because they used to,” Whitehouse said. “You should be looking to fix that problem. Maybe you should take some time and look back on how things used to work, because they used to work extremely well. You’d go to a fourth grade band night and you’d think, ‘Wow, these kids are really amazing.’ If that isn’t happening any more, I’d like to know why and maybe that could be addressed.”

Dan Beard of Kennebunkport — a former school board member who also taught music in Biddeford for 40 years — is a longtime member of the Keith McClelland Community Music Foundation, formed in honor of the popular longtime elementary music teacher who died in 2002, in order to support RSU 21’s elementary school music programs.

Beard appeared extremely dubious of the plan to replace Grade 4 band with what Potenziano termed “an exploratory year ... to be developed by teachers and administration,” allowing all students to experiment with a variety of instruments, especially when Potenziano admitted, “We haven’t figured that out all the way, frankly,” when asked how the RSU expected to provide instruments enough for all kids to try out.

“What I’m hearing is that you have no real understanding of how you are going to put this program together,” Beard said. “Why would you venture into something where you have no idea how it’s going to work? Would you build a house without a set of blueprints? You sound like you have a vague idea of what you’d like to do, but no real idea of how to get it done.”

Hawes reconvened the task force to take a second look at its recommendations.

The second edition of the task force met twice, on April 30 and May 15. Those sessions were led by facilitator Dr. Kevin Perks of Acton, a school improvement specialist for San Francisco-based education consulting firm WestEd. In presenting the results to the school board at its June 4 meeting, Potenziano did not say whether the task force achieved consensus the second time around or what, if anything, Perks was paid.

Under the new plan, Grade 4 band will continue as normal, except at MLD where it will no longer be convened before schools, integrated instead into the regular school day.

Potenziano said school principals will now “encourage greater student participation” in the Grade 4 and Grade 5 bands, and, for those students who choose not to participate, provide “comparable learning experiences during the school day and for similar amounts of time, to the greatest extent possible.”

Chorus will be provided after school at all district schools, while general music instruction in Grades K-5 will be provided “by the same teacher,” as is the case with the band, “in order to provide greater continuity,” as, at present, the general music instruction may come from a host of sources.

Other highlights of the new plan, Potenziano said, include creating a committee “to develop a formal vision for instrumental and choral music, K-12;” implementing a common procedure among all school, that will include parents is “successful selection” of band instruments for their children to pursue, providing, “consistent time for music instruction across all schools, and implementing small group lessons “in like-instrument groupings, to the greatest extent possible.”

All students will be introduced to reading sheet music in Grade 3 by being taught to play the recorded — a lesson Whitehouse said used to be standard practice in McClelland’s day.

Although the music restructuring was presented for a school board vote of approval March 5, the board did not give an official endorsement to the makeover.

“This was actually not intended to be a board vote in the first place,” board chairman MaryBeth Luce, of Arundel, said. “This is the type of curriculum update that is in the administrative realm of the work of the school. It’s not really our place as a board to vote on [curriculum] necessarily.

“That’s the administration’s job and what we are asking them to do,” she said.

“Since I was one of the proponents for going back to the table, I appreciate all the work that went into this,” board member Maeghan Lovejoy said. “I also appreciate that we see the need that we do need a formal vision for a strong music curriculum here in the district. It makes me personally happy. We lead the way in so many other programs here in our district and I’d like to see us have a full charge for our music program, as well.”

In a June 7 interview, Whitehouse said she was happy with the final task force product.

“I was pleased and I actually sent them [the school board] a thank-you note,” she said. “I think we came a long way from the first night. This new plan is much better. I am really hoping that it will work.

“I think that we, meaning the McClelland Fund board, feel that we really have to pay attention because all of this was presented as, ‘This is what we’re going to do, but we’ll see how it works.’ That tug-of-war between letting kids out of class for music lessons and the need to stay in class for core subjects is still there.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

Return to top