Budget Cuts Affect Music, Arts

District 4J has lost half its arts teachers

At Churchill High School, potters’ wheels sit unused inside a dark room. At a number of schools in town, stages are dark because reduced funds have shuttered performing arts programs. And at most of Eugene’s elementary schools, students get music instruction for just a quarter of the year.

Participating in art and music classes teaches children to make good judgments, solve problems and celebrate multiple perspectives, advocates say. It strengthens the learning environment and provides the spark that keeps some students coming to school. But budget cuts in 4J, like those nationwide, have consistently slashed music and art programs to the point that in many schools, they’re a mere shadow of what they once were.

“We have lost our depth and breadth of what we can offer,” says Lance Eagen, an art teacher at Churchill. “We as humans are designed to be well-rounded; we have two halves of the brain. We’re not ignoring that right side of the brain, but we’re certainly underserving that side of the brain.”

Today, 4J has roughly half the art and music teachers it had a decade ago. In 1991-92, the district had 15.6 full-time equivalent (FTE) art teachers; this year, the district has 8.5 FTE. Eleven years ago, 4J had 30.7 FTE music teachers; this year, there are 17.8 FTE.

Nine weeks a year

The district decided this year to provide music specialists — as they’ve done with physical education specialists — to each elementary school for nine weeks a year. “The nine-week situation is a huge improvement in many ways,” says Kerry Delf, 4J’s communications coordinator.

Before this year, schools were given staffing allocations based on projected enrollment, the needs index and other factors. Each school’s administrators then decided how many teachers taught which subjects, leading to difficult choices between including subjects such as art and music and increasing class size and reducing class size at the expense of art and music. Wide variability among schools resulted, with some students getting no music and art at all.

This year, students get nine weeks of music, as they get nine weeks of PE. “It would be great if we could provide [these subjects] year-round,” says Delf, “but we remain in dire financial times.”

Chris Mudd has taught music in 4J for 15 years and oversees 4J music education. He notes that while it’s good that all elementary schools get some music instruction during the year, “this is far from the ideal.” When he taught at Parker Elementary and saw every student every week year-round, he says, he was able to “just scratch the surface.” Today, with just nine weeks of music, “there is a limit to what can be covered.”

Whether students get music the other weeks of the school year is up to individual classroom teachers. They’re not required to offer music because, according to Sara Cramer, 4J’s director of elementary education, music isn’t required by the state.

At the elementary level, art is not included in the nine-week program and is taught by classroom teachers as they are able, often as part of the school-day curriculum. “PE and music were considered [for the nine-week program] primarily because we still had certified teachers providing instruction in those two curricular areas at the elementary level,” explains Cramer. “We have not had certified art teachers at the elementary level for at least 15 years.”

Supplementing district-provided music and teacher-provided art are programs funded by grants from the Eugene Education Foundation and those supported by community arts organizations, as well as parent-funded projects that vary from school to school. But these programs can’t make up for the absence of year-round, on-site art and music teachers.

At the upper levels

At middle and high schools, each school decides how to staff art and music. Administrators are under pressure to boost scores in core subjects like math and language arts, so music and art often find their way to the chopping block. The result in many schools: Classes in applied arts are gone, along with wood and metal shops, drafting and ceramics. Churchill and North Eugene have lost their orchestra classes. Middle-school strings classes have been cut. The district no longer has a choir in every middle school, according to teachers.

At Churchill, budget cuts limit the number of sequential art courses. “We used to be able to offer drawing one, two and then advanced placement, and then ceramics one, two and three,” explains Eagen, who has been at the high school for 17 years. “Last year, all of that was gone, everything.”

In addition, Eagen says, his classes are larger and students are getting fewer options for electives. “Arts always, always falls afterwards,” he says. “It’s always scheduled after ‘the real classes’ are scheduled.” Eagen says this puzzles him, considering that art is a graduation requirement (students need three units of fine or applied arts, world language or career/technical education, or any combination of the three).

High school art and music teaching staff has declined, too. Both Churchill and South Eugene used to have three full-time art teachers; now Churchill has 1.3 FTE and South has 0.8. Many of the teachers who remain commute to multiple school buildings daily, Mudd says.

Theater programs at many middle and high schools have also been cut back. The exception is at South, where parent and student support has allowed the performing arts program to continue.

Some schools cope with cuts by charging for programs that were once included in the curriculum. James Monroe Middle School stages a talent show as an after-school activity. Last year, students were asked to pay $50 to participate.

“We had a fee waiver form for kids on free and reduced-price lunch,” remembers Steve Robare, who taught music at Monroe last year. “No one filled those out. Two kids told me outright that they wouldn’t ask their parent to fill out the form because they didn’t want to make their parent feel bad about money.” Robare ended up waiving the fee for all students and the show went on — but with half the number of acts as in previous years.

Effect on students

Arts education has been found to produce many beneficial results. It helps close the achievement gap, “leveling the ‘learning field’ across socio-economic boundaries,” according to a statement released in 2010 signed by 27 groups, including the College Board, the National Art Education Association and the American Association of Musicians. “The arts reach students not otherwise engaged, uniquely bridging the broad spectrum of learning styles.”

The success of low-achieving students in the arts often transfers to achievement in other subject areas, according to the statement. And students who participate in the arts outperform those who don’t on virtually every measure, with sustained learning in music and theater leading to greater success in math and reading, and poor students reaping the greatest results.

Cutting art and music programs takes a toll on students, educators assert. Richard Long, who taught band and orchestra in 4J for 39 years before retiring last year, is passionate about the value of music. Long says it’s easy to find information about music improving math scores, but in his experience the electives are “usually the things that are the most meaningful” for students. “These are the places they meet their friends, hang out with teachers after school. When you take the electives away,” he says, kids have to face the day without anything fun. “What kind of day are we creating and what kind of inspiration are we creating for lifelong learning?”

“Kids need music like a fish needs water,” says Mudd, who adds that despite all the cuts, he feels 4J has made an effort to try to retain as much music instruction as possible by making cuts in other places before cutting music.

Nonetheless, Mudd says he thinks music education has suffered in this town. “All students don’t have the same opportunities to access the full complement of classes.” And without those opportunities, many students — especially those whose parents can’t afford extracurricular lessons — aren’t able to take classes in these areas. That in and of itself creates an equity issue, Long and others say.

Community support

Fundraising efforts and community organizations have stepped in to fill some of the gaps created by the district’s budget shortfalls. The Eugene Education Foundation (EEF) gave about 30 percent of its grants to the arts and music last year, approximately $25,000 to the arts and $27,300 to music, according to Molly Wittkop Lajoie, EEF’s executive director.

“There has been an increase in requests” for arts and music, Lajoie says. There’s also a history of repeat requests — schools that ask for funds each year for ongoing projects — for example, McCornack Elementary School seeks an annual grant for its musical.

This year, among its grants, EEF gave $14,513 to train elementary music specialists and provide supplies for the nine-week music program. In addition, Kennedy Middle School got $2,000 for its jazz band and Roosevelt Middle School was given $2,000 for its guitar program.

“These grants provide a spark that helps ignite a lifetime of learning,” Lajoie says. They “help support students where that spark could be the excitement of singing in the choir or playing an instrument or performing in a play.”

Donations to EEF come from members of the community and are especially important for art and music, says Lajoie, at a time when these programs aren’t provided in schools. One EEF-funded program is Artists in Residence.

Liora Sponko, executive director of the Lane Arts Council, connects artists in the community with schools through YouthArts. She’s brought artists to Family School Elementary and Awbrey Park Elementary, among others, to teach children about dance, music, clay and ceramics. Money for the Artists in Residence program used to come from 4J, but that funding ended in 2010, Sponko says. “Now that schools have to pay the fee on their own, funding for arts education rests on the shoulders of passionate parents, principals, teachers and nonprofits.”

One elementary school that’s passionate about music is Buena Vista. When the nine-week music program was instituted this year, it represented a reduction from the elementary school’s previous year-round program. The parent-teacher organization raised $15,000 to contract with the Lane Arts Council to provide music for the rest of the year, according to Sponko, bringing in musicians to offer programs on the fiddle, Hawaiian music, West African music and Latino music and dance.

Sponko also oversees a pilot project in four schools that use art as a tool to teach other subject areas, such as science and math, through grants funded by the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Arts Commission.

Bridging gaps

But the programs Sponko helps provide are piecemeal, she says. “We’re working hard to raise money and to provide some type of arts program for schools, but the funding isn’t sustainable.”

To bridge the gap between schools and the arts and culture entities in the community, the Culture and Education Alliance held its first meeting last month. “Funding, of course, is still a question,” Sponko says, but collaboration will enable different groups in the community to share resources and get creative amid cuts.

Another effort to bridge gaps involves Arts Umbrella, a local organization that encourages young people in performance arts. Since 2008, the group has offered strings classes before and after school in collaboration with 4J; the district used to offer strings classes to fourth and fifth graders, but that program was eliminated in the early 2000s due to budget cuts. Arts Umbrella is investigating ways to provide such classes during the school day, according to Michele Pound, the organization’s executive director. — Anne Bridgman

Anne Bridgman is a freelance writer and editor and an advocate for public schools and children in poverty. She lives with her husband and daughter in Eugene. To share ideas or stories about how the budget cuts in Eugene have affected your school or child, email Anne at shortchangingourschools@gmail.com