Sunday, December 02, 2001

Music program withers at CPS

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati Public Schools' music program once was so groundbreaking, so comprehensive, that it was copied by school systems in New York and Boston.

        Today, music in the city schools is in such disarray that teachers share, barter or go to pawn shops to get instruments. Instruments the schools owned a decade ago have been sold or lost — or they're broken and locked up in closets.

        “Our music program is just like the Titanic. Once it started sinking, it sunk,” says Eddie Love, a veteran music teacher of the city schools, now at Bond Hill.

        Cuts in music began in 1991, when reforms laid out by a blue-ribbon commission on schools shifted the emphasis to academic achievement that could be measured.

        Now, 10 years later:

        • Each of the 75 city schools determines whether to offer music classes. The central office doesn't know how many of Cincinnati's 41,400 students get music.

        • All elementary instrumental programs were cut a decade ago, but about 20 have restarted in the past five years. Supervisor positions were not restored, however, so no one oversees music teaching or the instrument inventory.

        • The district has no standard course of music study, nor is there a district music budget. Some music teachers get $100 annually — some nothing — from their schools for supplies. Children share music textbooks from 1987.

        • District-wide musical events have ceased.

        Although the district has acclaimed music programs at Walnut Hills High School, the School for Creative and Performing Arts and in arts magnet schools, the 47 neighborhood schools are lacking.

        Steven Adamowski, the schools superintendent, predicts “an upswing in terms of restoring music programs.” His goal is to spread funding equally among schools so all can offer music study.

All or nothing

        Nowhere are disparities more evident than between Cincinnati's magnet and neighborhood schools.

        At North Avondale Montessori School, a spacious, bright music room sports congo and djembedrums, a piano, percussion instruments, violins and colorful music posters. Magnet school teacher Cindi Menefield has a long agenda, from music history to rhythmic clapping.

        “Tell me what instruments we featured last week,” she asks her class of first- through third-graders. She gets a chorus of answers: “Trumpet, French horn, bassoon, piccolo, recorder, oboe, xylophone and snare drum.”

        Several students perform violin solos for the class.

        Just seven miles away, students and teachers make do with a whole lot less at Central Fairmount School, a neighborhood school. One day last winter, 22 third-graders trudged across the parking lot to a music room in a grim modular building.

        Music class began with a reading drill. Teacher Steve Mason was required to reinforce core subjects, such as reading and social studies, in addition to teaching music.

        Some children never opened their mouths. A little girl in the back row stared silently at the overhead projector. Finally, the kids sang a song, accompanied by a CD. They never removed their hats, coats or backpacks. Soon, they were lining up to leave.

        After school, Mr. Mason directed a small chorus, the school's only extra-curricular music. A few children came; most could not get rides home or afford bus fare to stay.

        “It's a day-by-day survival for me,” Mr. Mason said then. In a reorganization, he now teaches strings at a magnet school, Schiel Primary School for Arts Enrichment, in Corryville.

        This year, new teacher Angela Carota has spruced up Central Fairmount's music room with orange paint. She's been allowed to buy some new musical instruments, but resources and teaching time remain limited.

        Lack of music instruction in the lower grades means that high school band programs “started drying up from the bottom,” says Howard Page, band teacher at Western Hills High School.

        He remembers having a 70-piece band for Friday football games, about 14 years ago.

        “Now, I have some Friday nights where I wouldn't have 25 kids show up,” he says.

        Because children aren't learning to play instruments in elementary school, they must first be taught to read music in high school.

        “They learn by rote. As the year goes on, they pick it up,” Mr. Page says. “If they can find the time to see me after school or at lunchtime, I sit and work with them as much as I can.”

        Music teacher Geri Johnson recalls that each city school had a band director, choir director and general music teacher in 1979, when she began teaching at Schwab, a neighborhood school in Northside.

        Now, she says, “We do the best we can. It ends up being a mini-lesson once a week. It's hard to build skill, continuity and class routine.”

        She teaches her students how to play music using a broken set of 12-year-old percussion instruments. Parts are missing, and there aren't enough to go around.

        “My heart's always been in the neighborhood schools,” Ms. Johnson says. “These are the kids who need the most. They need the most and have the least.”


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