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In Rowland Unified, a music program's expansion comes with growing pains

General music teacher Dan Wohlitz leads second graders at Rowland Elementary School in a song and movement exercise. Gina Ward/ Rowland Unified School District

A collective sigh broke out among second graders at Rowland Elementary School when the music class ended.

"You know what? We're gonna have to continue next week," teacher Dan Wohlitz told the class. "We had a wonderful time."

This was the second week of school, the second music class of the year, and the students had just spent 50 minutes learning folks songs, clapping out rhythms and learning the basics of reading music.

“I like the clapping because I like to clap a lot,” said Ashley Perez, who sat in the front row close to her friend Samantha Hass. 

"I wanna learn more singing so I can get better and better at it," said Hass.

These general music classes have been missing from the Rowland Unified School District for about seven years. This year, the district speedily launched a music expansion program to provide classes for all elementary students – general music instruction for first through third graders and instrumental lessons for grades four through six. 

Rowland Unified is one of many districts that, bouncing back from recession cuts, is starting to pump resources back into arts instruction.

But while there is widespread support for the goal of making music available to all students, some music teachers are concerned that the quality of instruction will be compromised in the rush to roll out new instruction. 

A SPEEDY CHANGE

"I said 'yes' to this, I think, right before July Fourth," said Bryant Aquino, the new visual and performing arts specialist for the district. He previously taught vocal music at the high school level and now is responsible for coordinating all of the districts arts programs, and launching the expanded music program.

"It’s only been probably a little bit over a month, but I felt like we put six months of planning into this, because it’s been nonstop," he said. 

The change happened so quickly because at the end of last school year, elementary classroom teachers negotiated a new contract. They got 50 more minutes of planning time each week. Over the summer, district administrators decided to cover that time slot with music instruction.

"We heard from our community very much that music was important to them," said assistant superintendent Teresa Healy. "And they liked the program we had, but they wanted more students to have opportunity and they wanted it to start [when students were younger]."

To accommodate the change, the district doubled their music program budget, from roughly $700,000 last year to around $1.5 million this year.

Teachers like Wohlitz, who had been reassigned to teach second grade when the general music program was cut during the recession, were able to return to teaching just music. 

"For several years, [students] haven’t been exposed to it, so they’re excited when they come in here and they really want to learn," said Wohlitz.

"What we’re hearing from the secondary teachers is that when they don’t have music in primary, the kids aren’t as strong and they don’t have as many kids that want to be in chorus or show choir," Wohlitz said. "So it’s an ongoing process from first grade all the way to high school."

'IT'S JUST THE NUMBERS'

Veteran instrumental music teachers Richard Schermer and Darlene McGrady are happy about the expansion, in theory, but have practical concerns. One of those is class sizes. 

"We’re very excited," said McGrady. "We really enjoy teaching. It’s just the numbers." 

They say many other music teachers share their concerns. There are 10 full-time teachers and one part-time teacher traveling between 14 schools to teach more than 6,000 students. This year, they are teaching more students for less time each week. 

Moreover, Schermer is concerned that the expansion will short-change older elementary-age students who have already begun the study of music. 

When the district made its recession-era cuts at the elementary level, some students in the upper elementary grades were able to take instrumental music and the music at the secondary level has remained robust. 

"The children who are going to be underserved are the ones who played in fourth grade and fifth grade who are now all lumped together," Schermer said.

For more than 30 years, he ran the district's mobile music program – where a couple dozen students took classes on a bus. The band from Nogales High School has marched in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade twice in the past seven years and other ensembles have received number accolades.

"We had students that literally wanted to come to this district just because of our music program – the higher caliber – so now that opportunity has been taken away," said McGrady.

District administrators acknowledge that this change has happened rapidly and, in the first few weeks of school, they're still working out logistics. But they're not concerned about any changes to the rigor of instruction for students serious about music.

"[Students will] have opportunities after school as well if they want to further pursue it," said elementary education director Miriam Kim. "I just think the opportunity to have music is a gift."

'ISSUES OF SCALE ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE'

Similar tensions have bubbled up in other districts that have embarked on widespread expansion of arts instruction. 

A little-known part of the California education code actually requires districts to provide access to all four art forms: dance, music, theater and visual arts. But the law is obscure and not currently enforceable. And several districts have run into obstacles as they've tried to widen their specialized programs to more students. 

When Chula Vista Elementary School District sought to provide music to all students, arts coordinators struggled to find enough teachers to hire. When Los Angeles Unified School District, tried to serve more schools by shortening some yearlong programs to nine weeks, the move angered teachers and parents.  

"Whether it’s music or dance or visual art, issues of scale are the biggest challenge in arts education," said Denise Grande, director of arts education for LA County’s Arts for All initiative.

Grande says developing a strong arts plan at the district level is key, and she hopes Rowland Unified can sustain the classes at the elementary level.

"That will change the whole pipeline of their music programs in the upper grades if they have everyone who’s been building those skills," she said.

Aquino, the new VAPA coordinator, is taking the long view and hopes to build that pipeline to strengthen the secondary programs. 

"I know that there are obstacles," Aquino said, "but the visions itself is amazing so as long as we get through it I think that there are a lot of things that we can overcome to make something greater."

Among students and parents, there is a lot of excitement. During the second week of school, more than 2,000 parents packed into the Rowland High School gymnasium for an information session about the instrumental music program. Secondary students showed off their instruments and vendors set up to explain rental options. (The district has allotted funds for families unable to afford renting or purchasing instruments).

Fifth grader Jarron Chua had his mind made up. 

"I’m going to learn to play the clarinet," he said, citing a rumor going around that it's one of the easier instruments to learn. 

He said that while some people think playing an instrument is "pointless," he thinks it’s important.

"I think you should play an instrument because it gets you further in life, because, like, it gets you further in life."