2018-04-13 / Front Page

Change in school music program strikes sour note

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Proposed changes to the grade school music program in RSU 21 have struck a sour note with some band boosters, prompting submission of a petition to retain the status quo.

Kennebunk resident Miriam Whitehouse has submitted a petition with 288 signatures to Superintendent Katie Hawes in hopes of preventing the change, which would eliminate the fourth grade band in favor of a regular block of music instruction for all students.

“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.”

Hawes said the issue is that only some students participate in fourth grade band, and those students are shuttled in and out of the regular classroom throughout the day for practice.

“There has been a concern that kids are missing a lot of instructional time to go to band,” Hawes said at the March 5 school board meeting. “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.”

Instead, the new plan calls 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 student. 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 joining a band and learning to become proficient on a single item. Then, grade 5 band would continue as usual, for those students who choose to continue.

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

Assistant Superintendent Phil Potenziano, who led an 11-member task force that worked on the proposal over the six meetings between October and February, did acknowledge that the new grade 4 concept has been referred to derisively by some as “a musical petting zoo.”

“We (on the committee) did not reach consensus. I want to be up front about that,” Potenziano said. “I think there were certain individuals on the task force who were not in total agreement with this (proposal). But we, meaning the administrative team, feel this is in the best interest of students.”

According to Potenziano, one significant concern is that not all RSU 21 schools operate in the same fashion. Mildred L. Day School in Arundel, though it joined the district in 2009, still offers its band practice before school, rather than during the day. That, Potenziano said, was the impetus for overhauling the program.

“Last May, one of the last things (retiring principal) Dr. (Kevin) Crowley said as we was going out the door, was, ‘Phil, you’ve got to fix this,” Potenziano recalled.

And Potenziano agreed, in part because that morning band practice is really only open to students who are able to get to school early.

“It is the core of my belief that having band before school in one building in our district is not appropriate,” Potenziano said. “It excludes students. We should be able to provide everything to all students. We presently are not doing that.

“We see this as an opportunity to expand band and make it more equitable K through 5,” Potenziano said.

In a bit of a reverse on the Mildred L. Day School concern, Potenziano said the new proposal would expand afterschool choral and glee club programs, currently available only at Kennebunk Elementary School, districtwide for grades 1-5, from 3 to 4 p.m.

Whitehouse, who has been a longtime member of the Keith McClelland Community Music Foundation, formed in honor of the popular longtime elementary music teacher who died in 2002, said that back in McClelland’s era, band practice was held before school in Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, as well.

But Hawes countered that “there is a reason” why band practice was moved into the regular school day — because it would simply cost too much to make a music program held outside regular school hours available to all students.

“Yeah, we could pay extra stipends and run four or five extra buses so that all kids can have that opportunity and not just the ones who can get here,” she said.

And besides, Hawes said, there are other reasons to reconsider a full band at the fourth grade level.

“There is some research, and some question at the fourth grade level around whether kids are ready developmentally, and (even) physically, to manage an instrument at that time,” she said. “What we see is that an increasing number of kids get frustrated early on and choose not to continue. The thinking is that we could open up opportunities for all kids to begin to read music, which, as we know, supports math development and supports literacy development and accesses a different part of the brain. So, this is a change that some people feel is an expansion of opportunity for all kids.”

“To me that’s huge, because right now so many kids don’t choose instruments, either because they don’t have the background to know they want one, or because their parents don’t have the wherewithal to do that. So, I’m very excited about it,” Kennebunkport board member Maureen King said.

“It’s really, really hard for them to choose an instrument without any experience in it,” agreed Arundel board member Ira Camp, voicing support for an experimentation year.

Hawes also said students are making slow progress, entering middle school having not made it all the way through their “red book” of sheet music.

“They’re not coming out of fifth grade ready to really to perform now anyway,” Camp said. “When they get to middle school there’s a lot of learning that needs to take place for them to be ready to play, anyway.”

“This district has had a very robust music program for years and years. It’s something we’ve 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. 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.”

Several others rose from the audience to join Whitehouse in her protest, both at the March 5 meeting, and again after she submitted her petition, at the March 19 session.

One of those was Dan Beard of Kennebunkport, a former school board member who also taught music in Biddeford for 40 years. Although he also questioned the proposed change, his primary concern was that, by Potenziano’s own admission, the exact scheduling of music classes under the new model, and just how the district will provide all the instruments needed for the grade 4 “exploratory year,” is something that, “will be developed by teachers and administration.”

“We haven’t figured that out all the way, frankly,” Potenziano said. “Once we agree to move forward, there’s a lot of work to be done for scheduling (and) for curriculum.”

“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.”

Emma Hauser of Kennebunk told the board it ought to reconsider making any change, if only because the task force itself was not unified behind the proposal..

“If you are not having consensus from the people who are involved in it, that’s meaningful,” she said. “Perhaps you should take a little more time to try and reach consensus.”

“My goal is consensus, always,” Potenziano said, “but sometimes you can’t get there and a decision has to be made.”

Still, not all board members agreed, not just because the trail forward had not been properly blazed, but because they weren’t even clear on exact where RSU 21’s music program stands right now.

“If we have to give up something so that everyone in our district can have equal and equitable access, that’s where I’m always going to go, because I feel like that absolutely trumps everything else in a public school district,” said Rachel Phipps, of Kennebunk. “That being said, I don’t know what the trade-off is because I don’t see what we currently have.”

“After nine years on the school board, very rarely do I get turned 180 degrees,” said Matt Fadiman, also of Kennebunk, who said he was swayed by audience comments. “Any time we contract anything, even in an effort of expanding something else, well ... I am in favor of more structured time, but I don’t feel is should come at the expense of eliminating a band program.”

Fadiman, Phipps and several others called on their peers to table the vote, which had already been moved and seconded, in favor of more research. However, Hawes said there was not much to be gained by sending the topic back to the task force..

“When you say more time is needed for deliberation, we have been working hard on this since October,” she said. “There have been lots of hours and lots of meetings and lots of information around this. If the board needs more time to talk that’s one thing, but I don’t know that we have more work to do, quite honestly.”

And yet, several board members complained that the task force had been convened without having been authorized by the school board. Some, like Meaghan Lovejoy of Kennebunkport, said they didn’t know such a thing even existed.

“I didn’t know this was happening until it was dropped in our (agenda packet),” she said. “A lot of parents didn’t know either. And we’re just going to vote tonight that there’s going to be no fourth grade band?

“I don’t know that there’s any more work to do, but I think we need to step back and think about it a little bit more, to let the public come in and express their opinions. I know it’s put us in a bad spot other times when we haven’t let the public have input,” Lovejoy said.

At that, King rescinded her second to the motion, taking the question off the table.

“I feel like I have information others don’t have, because I actually have known about this for a while,” she said. “I think when all of the board members have the information, they will have a viewpoint that is perhaps similar to mine. So, we just need to get that to you.”

The board initially agreed to revisit the issue at its March 19 meeting. However, by then Whitehouse had submitted her petition. Hawes has said a new vote is now scheduled for the June 4 board meeting.

The district also has issued a FAQ for those concerned about the proposed music changes. It can be found on the district website at www.rsu21.net.

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

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