By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer
WYOMING - For months, talk about eliminating the fourth-grade strings program struck a sour note with parents who worry about the future of Wyoming Schools' acclaimed music program. But Superintendent Ted Knapke will recommend at tonight's Wyoming School Board meeting that no changes be made in the music program - at least for next school year.
That doesn't mean it's a dead issue, though, because he still believes the district must create parity among the strings, band and choral programs.
"The district has, to some extent, appeared to operate around the strings program," Knapke said. "There are a number of parents who have complained, and justifiably so. Why is it some of the most motivated kids get recruited into fourth-grade strings? That creates an impression of a two-tiered program."
Wyoming, a district of 2,000 students that ranks among the highest-achieving in the Tristate, starts its strings program in fourth grade, one year earlier than band instruction.
Nationwide, about a third of school districts start strings at fourth grade, slightly more than a third start in fifth grade and slightly less than a third start in sixth grade, according to the American String Teachers Association.
The endangered fourth-grade strings program, in existence for 40 years in Wyoming, has been a hot issue in this affluent Hamilton County community, because it's home to many professional musicians, including members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and teachers at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
IF YOU GO
Wyoming City School Board will meet at 7:30 p.m. today at the district's administrative center, 420 Springfield Pike, Wyoming. Superintendent Ted Knapke will discuss his recommendation that no changes be made in the music program for next school year.
"They boast about being a district of excellence," said Gayla Fritzhand, a Wyoming parent whose three high school and college-age sons are strings players. "If they're a district of excellence, why would they consider eliminating one of the most excellent parts of their school curriculum?"
The issue surfaced in October when Doug Gaines, band director for Grades 5-12, began circulating petitions asking that band and orchestra start at the same time. He got 250 signatures.
"We feel the strings get a recruiting advantage by starting a year earlier," Gaines said. "Some (strings) students do drop out, but they get the majority of kids, and they get the brightest kids. They start at 100 students in the fourth grade out of 154 kids, and that leaves 54 to go either into band or choir, which is really not enough to develop an equal, balanced program."
But Wyoming strings teachers and parents say the district has already achieved a balance by starting strings in fourth grade. They say it makes sense to begin strings at an earlier age than a wind instrument.
Bob Gillespie, professor of music at Ohio State University and national president-elect of American String Teachers Association, said research shows the earlier the start on a string instrument, the better.
"The ability to play string instruments is quite complex because the right hand, when playing, is doing something completely different than the left hand," Gillespie said.
"You have to eventually develop note reading ability on top on that," he said. "You have to develop a capability of aural skills because there are no buttons, frets or keys. When you put all four of those components together it is quite complex compared to other instrument families. It just takes longer to develop those skills."
Lauren Brandstetter, a Wyoming High School freshman, has been playing strings since fourth grade. "Strings is very hard to learn, because it requires the player to learn how to do the fingerings and move the bow, as well," Lauren said. "When you are first learning this, the bow and the instrument seem like totally different instruments in themselves.'"
She believes the music program in the district is balanced, but adds: "If band is feeling left out, then bring band to fourth grade, as well."
The problem, district administrators say, is that space at the district's three elementary schools is inadequate to teach both simultaneously in the fourth grade.
A good school music program is marked by a balance of choices and an opportunity to participate, said Bob Monroe, Princeton City School District music coordinator and orchestra director at Princeton High School.
"Wyoming has a history of an excellent orchestra strings program," Monroe said. "I don't know if making one program less successful is necessarily going to make another program more successful."
Elizabeth Pridonoff, president of the Wyoming School Music Association, is a concert pianist and teacher at CCM. Some people have told her they never would have signed Gaines' petition if they had known it would evolve into an issue of eliminating fourth-grade strings. She has no problem with band starting in fourth grade, but said it's absurd to get rid of a successful fourth-grade strings program.
Residents on both sides of the issue have attended board meeting and sent a flurry of e-mails to school administrators.
Jill Irwin is the mother of a fifth-grade son who began strings last year. The program, she said, has taught him about memorization and discipline. Now, her third-grade son can't wait to start strings next year.
"I don't want to pit programs against each other. I want it all. That's why I'm here (in the district)," the Wyoming woman said.
Nancy Carter has four children in the district, three of them in choir and one in band. There was a fair amount of pressure on them as third-graders, she said, to take up strings.
"I don't have a strong opinion about when it should start," Carter said. "I would just like to see all three start at the same time, so there's not a perception that one is better than the other, but there are three nice opportunities."
That's how it's done in Sycamore Community Schools, which starts strings, band and choir in fifth grade. All three programs are presented in an assembly at the beginning of fifth grade. Students then get to see all instruments and try them out in a general music class to help them make a decision.
No changes next year
Wyoming's fourth-grade strings program appears to be safe - for now.
"There are so many variables and unknowns in the budget. ... We felt it's better not to make changes right now and look at the situation next year," Knapke said.
In the meantime, some other variables that may have played a role in the decision: Knapke is taking a new job as superintendent of Shelby School District outside Charlotte, N.C. And Alberta Schneider, who teaches strings to fourth-graders and middle schoolers, is retiring this year after more than 30 years. Her position will be filled.
The district also is building a new strategic plan, which includes looking at reorganizing its primary schools so all Wyoming fourth-graders, for example, would attend school in one building.
Possible reorganization is separate from the music issue, Knapke said, but he added, "Anytime you're providing a program in three different buildings, you're losing efficiency with teachers traveling among the three. A lot of this is about making sure we use the resources we have as effectively as possible."
Schneider, who was named Teacher of the Year by the Ohio String Teachers Association last year, said she is concerned about the gradual erosion of the music program. Last year, a band teacher's position at the middle school was eliminated.
"If they cut fourth-grade strings, it will forecast what I believe is a bleak future for the arts in Wyoming schools," the strings teacher said. "They just keep chipping away at our music program."
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