By Andrea Gregory
According to the city’s proposed capital projects budget for fiscal year 2008 – which began July 1, the city plans to buy $100,000 worth of new instruments to be played by elementary school students citywide.
The hefty investment in the music programs follows years of cutbacks to arts and music programs nationwide. Music and arts advisory groups say there is a direct connection between the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act and the cutting of arts programs since test pressures have outweighed the importance of extras in curriculum activities. Couple that with state and federal funding cuts and school districts are still letting these programs fall to the wayside.
“I think people are forgetting what schools are supposed to be,” said Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone.
Over the last few years, several Massachusetts school districts found it difficult to maintain such extras in their curriculum due to decreases in state aid. However, Curtatone said Somerville is in a position to financially be able to put up the money for instruments at the elementary school level. The details of how they will be distributed are still being worked out. Curtatone said it is possible that parents will be able to rent and/or purchase instruments. The idea is to allow more students access to their musical ambitions.
“Collectively, we all feel that an investment in the music and arts is a good investment,” said the mayor, adding that music and arts are as vital to the schools as sports programs.
Curtatone calls the $100,000 “a good jump start” for the music department. He said instruments do need to be replaced and maintained. Although $100,000 may not be paid out for music supplies each year, additional funding will be needed in the future to ensure that the program thrives, he said.
“The arts and music and athletics aren’t things communities should be cutting. Those are things we should be doing more of,” he said. “These programs are essential for young people. This isn’t lavish spending. This is a critical need for our students.”
The transfer of funds from the capital stabilization fund still needs the aldermen’s approval, but the mayor said he is “pretty certain” the request will go through.
“We are going to make the investment. It is needed,” said Curtatone.
Curtatone, a product of Somerville schools himself, learned how to play several musical instruments back in his grade school days. Currently, parents are allowed to rent instruments through an outside company doing business with the school district. Officials say that it is not an easy process for every parent and is limiting some students’ access to instruments.
“The first step is getting the musical instruments in their hands,” said Rick Sauders, director of music for Somerville schools. “The second step is creating a culture of music making.”
However, the first step has proven to have obstacles under the current system. Many of these snags are directly related to Somerville’s unique demographics since many residents are immigrants and do not posses the proper documentation it takes to rent an instrument.
Every September, the thought of creating beautiful music enters a many young minds as the opportunity is dangled in front of them. Their parents have a chance to rent instruments, allowing the children to take lessons throughout the school year. The rental company is independent from the school. The rental company also requires parents have a credit card and drivers license.
Sauders said he watched about 10 families with cash in hand get turned away last year when the rental company came to the schools.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said, adding a kid is not going understand that if only his mother or father had a credit card, he would be leaving with an instrument that day. “It was a real problem.”
Some of the school faculty on site put up their own credit cards as collateral for families that have no other means of getting a musical instrument for their kids.
“I have done that on occasion,” said Rosemary Sears, who has worked as an instrumental music teacher in Somerville schools for five years. “The company requires a lot of documentation. Quite honestly that is a barrier.”
School Superintendent Tony Pierantozzi said $100,000 would allow for the instruments to be locally controlled. He said he would like to see all students have access to the instruments regardless of their families’ income or documentation.
He said he is also pleased by the support of other officials to build up the music and arts through new positions and investments such as this one. He said the music and arts programs are still recovering from the budget cuts suffered in the earlier part of the decade, but positive changes are underway.
“I’ve taught in some of these suburbs where (cuts to arts and music programs) are now happening,” said Sears. “I applaud Somerville
Sauders said he believes more students will take advantage of the musical instrument program and stick with it under the proposed plan. He said 173 elementary school students were enrolled in the program during the recent school year. It will take three to four years to really grasp the effects of investing in the school music program, he said, adding that he sees this as a positive step toward helping kids develop a rounded education and a love for music.
“It creates a better environment,” said Sauders. “$100,000 is a lot of money and it can definitely purchase a lot of instruments. It’s the beginning of something.”