Out of tune: Silver Falls School District at odds with Silverton Friends of Music

June 2019 Posted in Arts, Culture & History, People, School

By Brenna Wiegand

Silverton Friends of Music presented a 41-page status report “Music in Silver Falls School District” to the Silver Falls School District Board at its May 13 meeting.

The nonprofit, formed three years ago to promote music instruction in area schools, hired Minnesota-based consultant
Dr. John Benham, author of Music Advocacy: Moving from Survival to Vision (www.save-music.org) to survey the district’s music offerings and give ideas for improvement.

The district has worked closely with SFoM since its inception, and the group has provided numerous items for high school programs that they couldn’t otherwise afford. SFoM created a community children’s choir, participates with the Harmony Project to put instruments in the hands of fifth graders, and this summer holds free Music Mondays in the park.

“When we first started we thought we might be a band and choir booster club for the high school but we quickly realized this was a greater issue,” SFoM President Sarah Weitzman said. “We kept seeing cuts to elementary music education and realized we wanted to not only fundraise but to be an advocacy group.”

The group became vocal at school board meetings and last November the school board requested that administration gather information about the music program to present at the board’s January work session.

SFoM felt the district presentation didn’t answer the questions the board requested in November, and didn’t put forth any solutions. Frustrated, it hired Benham, who has traveled across the country to aid school districts in keeping and supporting strong music programs. He does this largely by examining programs, producing reports that include national findings on music’s role in student development and by encouraging collaboration between community, teachers, board and administration.

Benham was tasked with creating a report on the importance of music in learning, the history of music in the district, issues, conclusions and recommendations.

Conflict arose when administration declined to cooperate in a district survey Benham uses in his research. Instead, SFoM did its own research to secure the information, largely gleaned from the district website. It was during this time the group took offense at being referred to as “adversarial” by district representatives including Superintendent Andy Bellando.

“I was visited by two members of their leadership a couple days before spring break and a little over two weeks before the consultant was going to arrive,” Bellando said. “They asked that the school district participate by completing a survey that would have taken multiple hours of time by my administrative staff and by the teachers and in conversation I said this feels very challenging.

“I asked if we could reach agreement to talk about the purpose of the consultant’s visit, another date and about how the information was going to be used. They weren’t willing to do that. I asked how long they’d been discussing bringing the consultant to Silver Falls and they said they’d been discussing it for about a year.

“We are incredible advocates of the arts,” Bellando said. “We receive similar requests maybe once a month… and very rarely do we participate. They often take time and valuable resources away from the classroom and that was definitely at play here.

“The district had no input on the selection of the consultant and that’s something we take very seriously. All of those things combined resulted in my feeling – and frankly the feeling of others – that it had turned somewhat adversarial and I believe that’s a defendable position.”

The final report suggests the formation of a 13-member task force to make recommendations regarding the structure of the music curriculum, followed by 16 specific recommendations as to how to improve it, administered through a district-wide music curriculum.

That’s another rub. There is no district-wide music curriculum because each of the district’s 13 schools is allowed to allocate its funding according to its own needs, resources, community input and priorities. The district is unique in that it covers 250 square miles with schools varying from 80 to 1,300 students. Schools administer music requirements either through pull-out sessions or by integrating it into mandatory subjects. This autonomy is what the community has asked for, Bellando said.

“There’s some sense in putting together a group of people to discuss how we can support music but it has to be with the clear understanding of the values that the school district maintains,” Bellando said. “If the intent is to apply the consultant’s report as it has been submitted it would be problematic because it’s counter to the values of this school district.”

Among SFoM’s recommendations are reinstating K-8 general music education in all schools; centralizing management of the music curriculum; requiring that music be taught by licensed music teachers and reinstatement of fifth grade band.

Comparing current district-wide participation in band to that of three years ago when fifth grade band existed, the report commissioned by SFoM says that the trickle-down effect of a lack of a formal, foundational fifth grade band will result in dire consequences for the high school program. It states that:

“Band enrollment in grades in 2015-2016 in grades 5-8 is 127. Band enrollment in 2018-2019 in grades 5-8 is only 37;

“This equates to a loss of 71 percent in student participation;

“With 90 less students in grades 5-8, the imminent collapse of the band program becomes obvious. At this point, there are only 77 students enrolled in grades 9-12 band. In other words, band will cease to exist;

“The real tragedy here is not the low number of students participating, but the fact that nearly 96 percent of the students never had a chance to participate, particularly those from local schools.”

“That was our most important takeaway,” Weitzman said. “That we won’t have a band program in three or four years is huge. We need to be more focused on making decisions that are student centered rather than adult centered.”

The issue is now in the hands of the board.

“Site-based funding says as long as schools are meeting state-mandated minimums they can staff up as they see fit,” said Silver Falls School Board Chair Tom Buchholz. “We hadn’t seen the report until a week or so before the meeting; I want to delve into it and have the administration team, who understands all the legal ramifications brought up in the report, look at it and get their opinion on it first.

“Plus we have a new board; two new board members and it’s probably best to wait a few months until the new board is in place and make the decisions then,” Buchholz said.

“We’re just having a disagreement and I want to make sure we find common ground,” he continued. “I understand they would like to see more music instruction throughout the district – that means something has to give; what other instruction is going to be taken away? It will be a wide-ranging discussion.”

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