Enrollment Shows the Program is a Success
As the data shows, the WGSD orchestra program has maintained its numbers year after year. The orchestra program and instructor Miss Freimark meet the needs of 110-120 orchestra students in grades 4-8 annually, plus a handful of students that then continue at the high school level. The enrollment numbers below were provided by District Administrator, Ed Brzinski, to myself and other parents that made requests. It is not known if these numbers were shared with the school board before their decision to eliminate the Orchestra Program was made. Because it appears the administration is not determining the student interest level for next year, we have created an orchestra interest survey for anyone with a student currently in 3rd, 4th, or 5th-grade. If you have a son or daughter interested in orchestraclass in those grades, please click HERE to take the survey.
Orchestra has a Scheduling Disadvantge
Because 6th grade moved to the middle school in 2020-2021, the Fox River numbers for this year include grades 6, 7, and 8, not just grades 7 and 8 as in past years. Note that the Fox River students this year in grades 6 and 7 make up 21 of the 24 orchestra students, or 88% of the orchestra students in grades 6, 7, and 8. These numbers are still excellent despite the scheduling changes that are described below.
The small number of 8th-grade students this year is likely due to orchestra classes being relegated to what is referred to as “Falcon Time” for the past two years. Instead of being offered as a stand-alone class, like ceramics, digital photography, band, choir, etc, orchestra students were given just 30 minutes during their “Falcon Time” to travel to the orchestra room, unpack and tune their instrument, and then begin their practice with Miss Freimark. This was a hurdle in itself, but social pressures caused many students to choose to drop orchestra so they would not miss the relaxed atmosphere and variety of activities offered during “Falcon Time”. Many parents have stated that their child stopped participating in orchestra class for this reason. To put orchestra class on a level playing field with all other classes offered at Fox River Middle School, the orchestra class needs to be scheduled as a regular class.
COVID-19 Takes it Toll on the Entire Music Program, especially Orchestra
In the 2020-2021 school year students in grades 4 and 5 were not allowed to participate in music electives due to scheduling complications related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The District was uncertain how to keep students safe if they combined students from different cohorts for a music lesson (orchestra, band, and choir). This decision may have been complicated further because one general music teacher had already been released by the District the previous spring of 2020. As a result of that position being vacant, the current orchestra, band, and choir teachers were required to pick up some of these open general music classes at the start of the 2020-2021 school year. This was expected to be temporary, and my family knows this all too well because in September 2020 we were still hoping to hear that our 4th grader could begin learning the cello. Unfortunately, the position was never posted or filled, and orchestra, band, and choir teachers were used to teach these vacant general music classes. At the same time, 4th-grade students wanting to play an orchestra instrument were denied the opportunity because Miss Freimark now had a full schedule. In addition, this year’s 5th-grade students, who had participated in orchestra class as 4th-graders, were not allowed to continue for the same reason. Other 5th-grade students that wanted to start a band instrument were also denied the opportunity. The decision to eliminate these student opportunities made a difficult year even more difficult.
Budget Concerns and a Flawed Process
While I have not watched all of the recent WGSD Board meetings from start to finish, I have not heard and I can not find any discussion about either: a) large cuts that will need to be made in next year’s budget or b) any discussion about cutting the entire orchestra program.
I did find a solitary reference to next year’s budget from the January 11, 2021 meeting (@ 1:11:15) where it is mentioned that “with no changes there exists a deficit of roughly $1.5 million” for next year. It was then explained that the budget process will be discussed at the business meeting, but the item was not placed on the January business agenda or referenced in the administrative report for January. At the February Committee meeting, the “Budget Process” was on the agenda but was then referred to a non-public “closed session” meeting (see recoding @57:15). No other discussion has been found on the budget process for February through April. If anyone knows of details I am missing please contact me at the email at the end of this article.
When performing a search at the district’s meeting and document portal, called BoardDocs, no agenda items or discussions can be found that mention the word “orchestra” after September 2020. Several parents that have stated that they watch all meetings have confirmed that they have not heard of any discussion on the elimination of the orchestra program. For these reasons, the news that WGSD’s successful orchestra program has been eliminated came as a huge shock to parents and students alike.
Time is of the Essence
The WGSD School Board will need to act soon if our music programs will be able to get past this difficult year with minimal damage. It is at this time each year in the spring that 3rd-grade students are learning about their option to enroll in the orchestra class the following year. They also get excited to learn about which orchestra instruments they can choose to play. In addition, this year’s 4th-graders, who did not get to begin, are hoping to start their orchestra instrument next year as 5th-graders. And of course, this year’s 5th-graders that were hoping to play a band instrument or join choir will hope to start next year as sixth graders. Obviously, whatever is going to happen with our WGSD music programs needs to be determined soon so those teachers can sell their programs to students at all grade levels and replenish their programs with renewed enthusiasm. Because waiting is not always the best option, we have created an orchestra interest survey for anyone with a student currently in 3rd, 4th, or 5th-grade. Click HERE to take the survey.
To make this issue even more frustrating, it is widely believed that two WGSD music program teachers were recently informed that their position may be reduced or eliminated for the 2021-2022 school year. We cannot let this happen for the sake of all that the WGSD music program offers. The negative impact on students would be too great.
The WGSD Administration and School Board have a difficult task. WGSD, like many districts, lost enrollment across the board as some families chose to teach their students from home, or transferred to Districts that made fewer COVID-related changes. The loss of district-wide enrollment this year, while likely only for a single year, does create a reduction in state aid for the following school year (2021-2022) even as those students return. In addition, other families chose to participate in WGSD’s 100% virtual JEDI program. Fortunately, the JEDI program is much less costly to the district than if those same students had left the District altogether. Again, most of those students are expected to return to the school buildings next year.
Approximately 25% of students in Grades 4-6 Participate in Orchestra
With about 800 students in grades 4-8 and orchestra enrollment averaging between 110-120, there is an annual participation rate in the orchestra program of 15%. The number of students that participate in grades 4-6 approaches 25%, year after year. How can we cut orchestra from grades 4-6 when one of every four students participates? What is all of this talk about Social Emotional Learning (SEL) if we cut one of the primary classes where SEL is intuitive to the class?
Most people accept that some cuts will need to take place for next year. Those that I have talked to feel that cuts should be made as far away from the classroom as possible. Or, if cuts that directly impact students have to be made an equal reduction in department spending across the board is the way to go, but not the complete elimination of our orchestra program. Another option is to use some of the millions of dollars held in the district’s reserve fund. After all, what is a reserve fund for if not for a once every 100-year pandemic? Finally, many districts put decisions like this to the community where a referendum vote is held for reoccurring expenses to maintain an individual program.
Our WGSD leaders have big hearts and I know they care deeply about all WGSD students, but they must begin to discuss these important issues in a transparent manner. Parents and concerned community members should be given timely notice about these serious program cuts and their opinions should be heard before decisions that impact so many students in such a negative way are made. If you choose to reach out to WGSD School Board members before the April 26th WGSD school board meeting, please share your concerns in a kind manner.
Photo Credits: Parents, School Yearbooks, the Music Department, and Facebook Posts – Thank You!
Posted by Matt Kranich on 4/12/2021
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