Saturday, March 29, 2008

Lessons that last, and that matter

I covered a school board meeting this past week at the more rural of our two major districts. They're facing some serious budget cuts, having lost about $750,000 from state and federal support and the local economy not being at a level where they can simply pass the costs on to local taxpayers.

It's all well and good to play the "small government" card, but I don't think these folks who talk about local decision making understand that we don't all live in suburban communities where we can sigh and decide against funding the lighted tennis courts in order to preserve academic programs, and then simply turn around and hold a fundraiser to light the tennis courts anyway.

People living on $14,000 a year can't take another hit on their property taxes, and I wish the legislators at both state and federal level would look back to what education was like in poor, rural places like Appalachia and the Deep South before the federal government decided it had to step in and even up the scales.

The district really does care about its kids. One of its successes has been an ID card program, because, while it's pretty obvious when you have a stranger in a district with only 1,000 students, you still need to have a checkout system at the library anyway, and by having the kids also swipe their ID cards at the cafeteria instead of paying cash, there's no way for onlookers to know who is paying for lunch and who is receiving a free-or-reduced-rate meal. About half the kids qualify for the latter, but more of them will eat it if they don't have to be stigmatized in front of their peers.

Speaking of checking out books, there is one certified librarian in the district, which has four tiny elementary schools scattered around its 500 square miles. She's at the high school; the elementary school libraries are staffed with aides. And they're going to have to cut her back to half-time.

But it was when they began to talk about the cuts in the music program that the pain really showed. The district just lost an unforgettable music teacher to cancer this past summer, a woman who had re-established their instrumental music program after several years of no program at all. They will not touch that program, the board president promised, because they know how hard it was for her to get it up and running again.

However, general music instruction for kindergarten through fourth grade will now be conducted by building principals or other staff members, because they can't afford a real elementary music teacher anymore. Nobody is happy about it, but there doesn't seem to be a solution. You do what you have to in hard times, and these are hard times.

It made me think of the Langley Schools Music Project, which was an album released about seven years ago. Someone came across an odd album at a secondhand store, a recording of a school concert from a rural school in British Columbia in the mid-70s. A music teacher had applied theory to a program in which he had little kids sing pop songs, and the album was simply a keepsake for the community, not an artistic statement. However, after it was discovered in the secondhand LP bin, it was reissued as a CD and became a quiet cult phenomenon, particularly in Canada, where one of the documentary shows -- probably "The Fifth Estate" -- reunited the children and let them talk about how much this music class had meant to them, and continued to mean to them in their adult lives.

It's a powerful album and a powerful statement about the impact of inspired, well-grounded teaching.

I put it on at odd times during the day, tuning it in and out, sometimes wincing as the singers hit a strange note, then shaking my head in puzzled wonder when the music suddenly, and against all odds, transcends the kitsch limitations that seem designed to keep it earthbound and soars off into the realm of true art. It flies -- crooked as a butterfly's flight, but it still flies. I wish every school taught music like this. I wish every piece of music recorded in a school gymnasium were this haunting... and then I suspect that, if I listened to them right, maybe they would be." -- Neil Gaiman, quoted on the Wikipedia article.

I wanted to find a full clip but could only find this snippet of the song that became the most commented on album cut, in which a nine-year-old sings what remains my favorite cover of the much-covered Eagles' song, Desperado. The cover inspired a scene in the movie "In America" in which a somewhat older girl sings the song, but it's impossible to improve on the spontaneity of this heart-breaking rendition.

There are other similar cuts on this web site, and you can find the album if you'd like to add something amazing to your collection.

I don't know where you find such amazing educators in a nation that would rather spend its money on other things.

2 comments:

Uncle Jed said...

It sounds like a bleak picture you paint for the future of these schools. It may be overly optimistic.
We are facing state budget cuts of our own, and I am sure this is happening other places too. I would like to think that this is in anticipation of future shortcomings, but that is not the way anyone is presenting it. Times are hard now.
So what are we looking at in the near future? The sequela of the mortgage catastrophe leads to an increase in tax-delinquent property, the net affect of which is a decreased levy at the municipal level. The only moving pieces in that calculation are the valuation and the rate. As you point out, many families can't tolerate much change in either. That in turn increases delinquency. It is a slippery slope.
Aside from what assistance the principal can offer to a budding clarinet player, the bigger question here is "What is that Principal not doing with that time?" Are we foregoing observation, or discipline, or staff development when someone's plate is that full? I don’t think that an administrator who steps up like that would intentionally disregard other duties, but at the end of the day something has to give…
Do you take the funds from other spending? Like what, roads? Most communities are on a shoestring budget there too. Again, let’s examine the effect on the $14K/yr family when the tires are “wearing and tearing” on potholes and neglected surfaces. As we saw in Minneapolis, the roads are kept at a minimum now, we are not talking about Kramer’s Luxury Lane.
I’m afraid there is a sea change coming. I’m not sure how we work it out. But if the subject makes your stomach feel yucky, I would suggest you avoid the link to nationalpriorities.org

ronnie said...

I'm astonished... I didn't know anyone outside of Canada had even heard of the Langley Schools Music Project or the album, which, yes, has attained cult status in Canada.

And then the link to nationalpriorities.com ... well, that's just sad, in a very literal sense.