Strained Duluth schools sing the blues over music cuts
Clare Chopp’s eighth-grade orchestra class at Lincoln Park Middle School this year has just four students, forcing creativity in how she teaches them.
Concert band and the a cappella choir at East High School each hold more than 70 kids, but eighth-grade music classes at both middle schools are experiencing severe declines in numbers — or have no class at all, like choir at Ordean East — since the district dropped the seventh period from the school day. There was no chamber orchestra course at Denfeld High School this year, and the orchestra positions at both Duluth high schools were less than full-time.
And since the 2007-08 school year, the number of full-time equivalent music teaching positions has dropped from 31 to 15.2.
“I feel terrible for the kids in my class,” said Gregg Ciurleo, the band teacher at Lincoln Park who teaches five sections like most secondary Duluth teachers; an unusual situation for other districts because it gives teachers little time to work with kids individually, prepare for concerts or handle the administrative side of music classes.
“I watch them and I see them struggling,” Ciurleo said of his students. “When people make decisions about staffing and look at it on paper, they don’t realize what’s involved in a band program, or choir or orchestra.”
The loss of middle school music lessons in recent years combined with the decrease in the number of students taking an eighth-grade music option will lead to further decline in what many regard as the region’s top music programming, teachers say. Fewer teachers and less time to work with students have already had a noticeable effect, said Chopp, who also teaches at Denfeld.
The district is attempting to reverse the trend brought on by years of budget cuts and declining enrollment, heeding the recommendation of music teachers. It will reinstate individual lessons at the middle school level with the addition of 2.4 full-time equivalent music positions for next year.
“Sometimes we try things that work and sometimes we try things that don’t work out so well,” said Superintendent Bill Gronseth, acknowledging that without lessons, it became more difficult for students to learn to play their instruments.
Challenges One of the biggest problems has been the elimination of the seventh period from the middle school day two years ago, a move made to save money. High school students have been dealing with that for several years, giving students less time for electives. The issue is more acute in the eighth grade.
Teachers say music and language courses are the most popular electives and, with six periods, kids are forced to choose between them. Music appears to be losing out. Band numbers at Lincoln Park, for example, shrunk from 112 in seventh grade last year to 26 this year in the eighth grade.
East junior Ji-won Choi attended Lowell Elementary when it was a music magnet school, and was able to begin playing the violin in the fourth grade. The program was eliminated in the 2011-12 school year when the money paying for magnet schools was redirected toward reducing the achievement gap.
Choi, first chair violinist for East’s symphony orchestra and a member of the elite Sterling Strings, said she didn’t have to choose between orchestra and a language in middle school. She isn’t sure what she would have done had she been forced to, she said.
“In our society, people value the foreign language more because that’s what colleges and businesses … are looking for,” she said.
Chopp’s four eighth-graders learn with her high-level seventh-graders on the days they have music class — seventh-grade music is now every other day — and during her down time when they don’t. If she didn’t make this arrangement, she couldn’t guarantee any freshmen orchestra students at Denfeld next year, she said.
Gronseth said he sent a letter to parents of this year’s seventh-graders noting that enrollment in a foreign language in eighth grade wasn’t a college requirement, in response to a rumor he said had spread.
Many students who opt out of music as eighth-graders don’t come back as freshmen, often because of scheduling conflicts brought about by the six-period day at the high school. The before-school zero-hour option allows some flexibility for the students it’s offered to — everyone but freshmen — but because transportation isn’t provided, it excludes those who have no means to get to school other than through the school district.
“People drop band because they can’t get the classes they need,” said Denfeld senior McKenzie Thomas, who plays French horn in the band. “And if you love it and decide you don’t have time for it, it’s really hard.”
Although she’s encouraged by the restoration of lessons, music programs will continue to have smaller numbers going forward because of six-period days, said Elaine Bradley, East orchestra teacher.
And because of gaps in abilities, she said, her orchestra students will learn less-challenging pieces of music than students have in the past.
“We’ll still have wonderful presentations,” she said. “It will just be a different technical level.”
Issues at the elementary level include reduced time with music teachers, who see students only once a week. In past years it was twice a week.
Other high school problems include a lack of advanced placement course choices like music theory and guitar ensembles that some students have asked for, teachers say, and no more “sectional” time. That’s when students with the same musical ability practice together with their instructor.
Teachers say it could take a few years for restored lessons to have an impact. The importance of lessons and music instruction itself can’t be overstated, said private music instructor Janna Blomquist, who teaches some Duluth students who seek outside help.
Studies show music increases graduation rates, especially among lower socioeconomic groups, she said.
“It provides so many life skills,” she said. “We celebrate with music. We worship with music. We mourn with music. We can’t even have a sports event without music.”
Inequity? Some teachers and parents point to the glaring difference in enrollment between Denfeld and East as a reason for reduced teacher hours at Denfeld. As of Oct. 1, East had enrolled 1,550 students and Denfeld enrolled 989.
That adds up to a tougher time teaching, Chopp said. It’s OK to have a smaller high school, but that school should be funded to the same level as the larger school, she said.
“It’s not you get $5 so you get $5. For us to do the same thing, really, we need $8,” she said. “That would be closing the equity gap.”
Fewer students live within the Denfeld boundary than live within the East boundary, but transfers between the schools are approved each year. This year, district transportation numbers calculated in December show that 57 students who live within the Denfeld boundary transferred to East and 34 who live in the East boundary transferred to Denfeld.
Deb Lepak, parent to a Denfeld junior who sings in its elite choir, Solid Gold, and plays the flute, said the inequity between the schools is “obvious.”
“We’re constantly bombarded with ‘vote for this referendum’ and ‘it’s about the kids.’ And we lose anyway,” she said, referencing music cuts and reductions in advanced placement courses at Denfeld. “It’s not about the kids. That’s what it feels like as a parent, anyway.”
Both high schools begin with the same course offerings, but each year some courses aren’t offered because of lack of interest, scheduling conflicts or financial considerations, Gronseth said.
So far for next year, he said, East has a few more class reductions on its list than Denfeld does because of student registration choices.
Poverty Poverty is felt to a deeper degree in the music programs at Denfeld and Lincoln Park, where more students are using school instruments for free or renting them through the free- and reduced-price lunch program.
Both western schools have populations that are far more transient than those on the eastern side of the city, teachers say, and have much higher numbers of students who come from low-income families. Denfeld’s percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch is 57.4 percent this year, while East’s is 21.7 percent. Lincoln Park’s is 65.6 percent, compared to Ordean East’s 25 percent.
At Lincoln Park, for example, the music program loses sixth- and seventh-graders because they are pulled into intensive and long reading and math blocks. It’s a measure used to improve performance at many district schools, and there in particular because the school is among the bottom 15 percent in the state for achievement. And some students in the western schools are victims of the area’s housing shortage, with families moving in and out of the city.
“It creates difficulty in stabilizing a program,” Chopp said, and it’s stressful for her students.
Reputation threatened? East choir teacher Jerry Upton isn’t worried about the quality of East’s choir program, but acknowledges how much harder he and other teachers work to get students to a certain level.
“There is enough tradition in the program where kids understand we have high expectations for sustainable music education,” he said. “The process has become harder to sustain the product, for sure.”
But Ciurleo sees Duluth’s reputation as having top-notch music programming diminishing.
“There is no cheap fix,” he said. “There are a lot of instruments that need repairs or to be replaced. You need lessons … You just need people doing the work.”
The district has the only orchestra program in the area, which actually draws students from other schools, said Teri Akervik, the district’s music curriculum specialist and a teacher at Myers-Wilkins Elementary.
“So for our region, there is more support in some ways,” she said.
The money The arts suffer financially because they aren’t state-tested subjects, said former teacher and Duluth School Board member Judy Seliga-Punyko.
But those areas are so important to kids, she said.
“Whether they love art or music, they can look forward to it in their day and it gives them a reason to go to school,” she said. “You don’t get excited for that basic skills test. But so often it is that music class, or art or phy. ed.”
When teachers’ hours are reduced it’s not only noticed in the quality of the music produced, but also in how many performances are given throughout the year, Akervik said, because they aren’t able to put together as many events.
And that’s hard on teachers and students, she said, because the community expects and looks forward to these performances.
“We couldn’t do what we do without Trampled by Turtles and Minnesota Public Radio,” she said, mentioning supporters of the district’s music program. “We have a lot of support from the community. But it’s not enough. It doesn’t cover teaching FTEs.”
Upton remembers reductions to music programming that go back to 1996.
“You stop and look and go, wow, this is what we had,” he said. “We had a full music magnet. Five teachers teaching piano. We had so much. It’s hard. But we all survive.”