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Opinion: Middle school music cuts would have far reaching effects

Anthony Granata

Anthony Granata is a Westport Public Schools orchestra teacher and a member of the Norwalk High School class of 2009. He is a graduate of Western Connecticut State University and a Fairfield University graduate student.

As a child going through the Norwalk Public School System, I struggled with more than just academic courses; I was bullied by my peers because of my weight. You can imagine what went on in my head going to Nathan Hale Middle School, as a young adolescent and being made fun of by other students, and then having to sit through classes that I struggled in or did not particularly care for.

I was never considered to be a strong or highly intelligent student. I did really well in English, and was considered average in my academic classes such as Social Studies and Science. Math was something I particularly struggled with. It was a difficult subject for me and I never really liked it that much.

That’s where music came in.

I am an alumnus of the Norwalk Public Schools Music Program. Since I was very young, Norwalk has upheld its reputation, one of the finest, for its music programs. The Norwalk High School Marching Band has won countless competitions, inspiring thousands upon thousands of children; the spectacular Candlelight concert that has gone on since before World War II draws back alumni from generations for three unforgettable nights of holiday music; the annual Spring musicals that are comparable to Broadway performances. These are all spectacles of achievement for this wonderful city, and for children like me who struggled in their academics and social life, music was a beacon of light and hope.

Now, Board of Education Finance Committee members have recommended cutting the middle school music program. According to a BOE member, they chose to make “the least painful” cut. Really? Let’s see how this least painful cut affects our children.

In order for students to learn how to play orchestra and band instruments, they need smaller individualized instruction. Typical ensemble classes range from 20 to 60 students in Norwalk. If teachers are to reach every student and make sure they are successful, small group lesson instruction is necessary to differentiate and provide an intervention. How is this supposed to occur in a classroom of 20-60 adolescents? Simple: it will not. Students who require additional support will fall behind, and the quality and integrity of this thriving music program will fall apart.

Let me clarify what exactly will happen to the legacy of the Norwalk Public School’s Music Program should the middle school lesson group program be permanently cut. After receiving the necessary instruction string students require at the elementary level, they would move on to the middle school program where instruction on their instrument would basically cease. They will enter being able to play grade 1-2 string orchestra music because of their elementary instruction, but without middle school lessons they will not progress and will plateau.

Because our band students do not begin instruction on their instruments until sixth grade, they will never receive small group instruction. In large classrooms with many students of varying learning abilities, these children will be lucky if they barely finish an initial beginning methods book by the time they leave middle school, which is typically completed by students within their first year of study.

Our successful marching band, which has won national competitions, awards, and fostered thousands upon thousands of inner city Norwalk children and encouraged them to work as a team and strive for excellence, will be gone within two years. Those children will have never received the necessary instruction they required to be successful.

The pit orchestras for our outstanding musicals will fall apart. The professional level music that accompanies the shows produced at the high schools, will be inaccessible to our students. They will have never received the necessary instruction they required to advance to that level.

Norwalk’s Candlelight concert, the oldest continuing holiday concert in America, proudly showcases the high school’s entire music department and is essentially the epitome of this program. The quality and the essence of this wonderful annual concert tradition will perish.

Other traditions that we can bid farewell to here in this beautiful city is Norwalk’s annual All City String Concert, featuring students from grades 5-12, winter and spring concerts at the middle schools, and concerts like the Jazz Footpath Café at the high school.

These excellent and wonderful traditions here in Norwalk will be destroyed because we are robbing our children of three years of music instruction. Have you considered the negative impact this will have on the Norwalk community? In this city, we pride ourselves on our arts education and these wonderful long-lasting traditions. Longtime residents will be devastated and our society will forever change.

Keeping in mind that Norwalk is a blue-collar community and is culturally and demographically very diverse, there are many students that would not be able to afford outside instruction to make up for the instruction lost within their schools. I would not have been able to get into my college’s music program without in-school lessons because my parents did not have the money for me to study privately.

The BOE is essentially proposing to extinguish an entire program here in Norwalk in order to cut “two music teaching positions?” How can this be possible? The BOE would like us to believe they are simply getting rid of middle school pull out lessons; in actuality, they are cutting the legs off a table. By eliminating the foundation of this program, which lies within Norwalk’s elementary and middle school music programs, they are destroying what makes this program special, unique, and strong.

If destroying legendary musical traditions here in Norwalk is not enough to convince you how devastating this cut could be for the program, then perhaps the impact on music for our children might. Students feel safe and happy in their instrumental music classes. Band, Orchestra, and Chorus is the one place students can go where they feel protected and can have fun. Our children are burdened by the stresses of academic classes for the majority of their school day. In their music classes, they can let themselves go and proudly make mistakes and not feel like they are failing. They learn teamwork, perseverance, and feel pride and accomplishment in themselves. By taking away their instructional time, we are asking our students to comfortably get up on stage and perform for the public. Will our beginning band students feel proud at their first winter concert performance when they can barely make a sound on their instruments, a skill typically taught and mastered during the first three months of instruction? Our students will feel embarrassed and will quit. We are setting them up for failure.

To Dr. Steven Adamowski, the superintendent of Norwalk Public Schools and the person who should proudly stand by this amazing program and the work these fine teachers do for these kids, I am shocked you have not rallied against this cut. That you pride yourself on “building a school district of excellence for the 21st century” is truly debatable. If this cut occurs, you are allowing the destruction of a legendary program that has fostered countless children in Norwalk.

To the Norwalk BOE member who wrote the following to a concerned parent: “The middle school private lessons disrupt instructional learning and we wanted to put a halt to the pull outs. Our first order of business is to teach kids how to add, read and write. That’s our core business,” I now speak to you directly. You obviously never had any music instruction, and I pity the fact that you can idly make a comment like this. If I may clarify this for you, the middle school lessons in Norwalk ARE instructional learning time for these students. They are typically done in small groups and are not private unless the instrumental difficulties or participation number warrant the need.

You further state that your first order of business is to teach kids how to add, read and write, which again clarifies to me that you definitely never had any musical instruction. Music encompasses ALL of these fields. Our students are using their brains to coordinate their fingers, hands, feet and even tongues to rhythmically play at precise moments in time. Given only a simple beat, students are reading symbols that can be traced back to the early 14th century and in their brains, are quickly subdividing those quarter notes into eighth notes, and dotted eighth notes, and sixteenth notes and thirty second notes. They are adding quarter notes to create half notes, and dotted half notes, and whole notes. They are doing so many things with their bodies and brains. They are doing math!

You want our students to develop literacy skills such as reading and writing. Our students are studying and playing music with directions written in Italian. In order to learn what those words mean, they annotate their music and develop a wider (and unique) range of vocabulary terms. When they make mistakes during lessons, they write notes and directions to themselves and learn from their mistakes. Music is also a foreign language in and of itself, but students are not just reading left to right: they are reading up and down (when the notes change); they are reading how to play the notes (articulations); they are playing those notes a certain way (tempos); they are playing those notes at a certain volume (dynamics). Finally, they are musically connecting their prior knowledge and making the music extremely personal for themselves, phrasing it a certain way and making it apart of their inner self. They share that passion with the listeners at concerts.

Music was the one place I could escape to at Nathan Hale when everything else seemed to be falling apart in my life. I loved going to Orchestra, but I enjoyed my lessons because that was where I really learned how to play the cello. I graduated from Norwalk High School in 2009 where I received the Outstanding Music Student Award, and I went on to receive my music education degree at Western Connecticut State University. I have since been teaching Orchestra in Westport, where I am able to share my love and passion for music, qualities that were instilled in me through Norwalk’s successful program. Because of Norwalk, I am the person I am today.

To not see the value of what music can do for a child is sad and disappointing. When this program is gone, what happens to the students who were like me? What happens to the child who struggles to read English but can read music, the child who cannot do math but can play in time, the child who has no friends but is apart of his ensemble’s community? It is easy to cut a program, but once this program is cut, I fear we can never recover it.

To my fellow Norwalk music alumni, parents of alumni, current parents of music students, and current students in the program, I strongly urge you to rally against the BOE decimating this program – “our” program, before their vote on Tuesday, June 20th. There are children in our elementary schools who saw the Spring Musical, and who saw those students performing in the orchestra, and whose eyes widened with excitement, and whose hearts will break when they realize they will never be able to experience that.

To Dr. Steven Adamowski and the BOE, I implore you to consider what this cut could do to music in Norwalk and to our children. Music education is a vital and essential part of their lives, and they deserve to have it touch their hearts as it did to mine and countless others.

8 comments

Patrick Cooper June 18, 2017 at 1:10 pm

Anthony, I believe you. You’re passionate about the topic, clearly. Your argument is lucid, researched, and clearly comes from a place intimate to every part of who you are – how you self-identify. As a taxpaying parent of a Norwalk public school student, I have been thrilled and amazed at the productions I have witnessed over the years. Norwalk’s clear strength has been and remains deeply rooted in the arts. I agree with you about Candlelight – and agree Mrs. Pettibone (farewell) and the music department at NHS literally produced Broadway level work on shoe-string budgets, and they wouldn’t have been able to do so without the middle school prep instruction.

You also note “math” wasn’t your strongest suit. Well it is mine. Anthony, budgets need to balance, and as we are reminded on the evening news daily – health care costs are rising at an unprecedented rate. Mine increased 29% this year (I’m healthy), with inflation at around 2%. The largest budget item the BOE has to manage is Teachers & Administrator salaries & benefits. That is over 50% of the budget. Our budget increased by 10.1 million this year, ½ of which went to Education – almost all of it saleries and benefits, and most of that benefits. When the negotiating body on behalf of that cost has the contract authority to deny changes to the district ( and to be fair, it is our agreement), even if the changes would support the very financial health and wellbeing of the district that supports that contract, then the BOE must – unfortunately – look elsewhere.

Recently, the Norwalk Police Union moved to the very same plan the NFT rejected. They did so with what could be considered reasonable give-backs (quid pro quo) to gain rewards for the savings. Other unions have done the same, with little fanfare or resistance. It’s likely favorable/ flexible contract language, but generally – “they get it”. But not the virulent strain of union that is our aggressive, politically active and connected NFT.

So I ask – are you pleading a case, or assigning blame? I hope the former – as this isn’t a done deal, and we have smart, committed folks on the BOE and in central office who listen more than they get credit for. They might be able to save some or all of these wonderful programs. But – if this is an attempt to throw shade on their values, and assign blame? Then I ask – is it really the “volunteers (no pay) on behalf of the town – the BOE members with a job to do (balance the budget)? Or, do we have an entitled public union that has a membership – IF all 100% live in Norwalk – representing less than 1% of the population of Norwalk (but receiving 52.1% of entire city budget!). The ability to compromise and have an outcome where both sides get a win is available with middle-school level negotiations. A moderator from Hank Mays could pull it off. But when one side is hell bent on receiving unrealistic concessions from folks put in a fiduciary responsibility to the city? Well Anthony, that’s how we lose music programs.

Joyce DiCamillo June 18, 2017 at 1:22 pm

Bravo to Anthony for speaking the truth! Besides the devastating impact these cuts will have on the music program as a whole, It consistently amazes me how administrators and Boards of Education can fail to assimilate the massive amounts of data pointing to the powerful link between music education and learning! MUSIC IS NOT A FRILL! This is 2017 – if those of us in the business of music education have acknowledged this research as fact for a very long time, it stands to reason that the education community as a whole should honor and value the inclusion of music in the child’s school day. Yes, that’s right – daily study of music, not bi-weekly or weekly, but DAILY, so that the many cognitive rewards of music education can take hold in the student. The success of HOT Schools proves that the integration of the arts in curriculum gleans powerful results. ESPECIALLY in a diverse community, treasuring and strengthening a strong music program must remain a priority. In Stamford, our El Sistema program, PROJECT MUSIC, is addressing the need for inner city children to have a level playing field, and we aim to serve every eligible kindergarten child in the future and carry them through high school with our program that teaches high level music instruction FOUR DAYS A WEEK after school. Immersion is the key to success – in ANY field! Already we have seen incredible results in 100+ students in grades K – 7. This is a transformative program, proven worldwide, effecting social change VIA music education. When will enlightenment come to our decision-makers? Why do they consistently support regression instead of progression? It falls on us as community members to force enlightenment via the ballot box!

Isabelle Hargrove June 18, 2017 at 8:39 pm

Anthony, you are directing your letter to the wrong people. The cuts are a result of the decision of the NFT not to switch health insurance to save the money desperately needed to educate our growing population with diverse needs. Go talk to them, your argument is very persuasive, they might listen.

Steve Colarossi June 18, 2017 at 9:38 pm

Anthony- For someone who is just starting a career in public education, you have an amazing insight. Although the Board of Education doesn’t decide how much money it gets to spend, it does decide how to spend that sum.

This BOE wants us to believe that they had no choice in these cuts. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are CHOOSING to cut music programs, a preschool program & kindergarten aides. They are CHOOSING to fund double-digit increases in central office departments, two new positions in the “communications” department and a substantial subsidy paid to a private preschool provider which already receives rent-free space.

And as you’ve highlighted, the proposed music cut is premised, at least in part, on a fundamental ignorance as to the value of music education by some BOE members. Of course, if the Finance Committee had publicly shared the cut list, conducted public hearings and evaluated cuts that would be less educationally-lethal (i.e., done their jobs), we wouldn’t now, on the eve of the budget vote, be struggling to educate BOE members on things like the value of music education.

Donna June 19, 2017 at 10:53 am

I agree with @Isabelle. @Anthony Granata blames the BOE for cuts to the middle school music program. But the NFT plays a definitive role in the proposed cuts that Mr. Granata glosses over. My children went through the Westport music program. My oldest benefitted enormously from both the radio station and the recording studio. But these were luxuries. And Westport, as Mr. Granata knows, can afford such luxuries. Westport parents can also afford private music lessons, which accounts for much of the success of their music program. The Norwalk BOE cannot afford to offer programs its taxpayers can’t pay for. This isn’t about the value of music programs for middle school children. This isn’t about giving the kids who don’t fit in elsewhere a “safe space”. For the record, my sons tolerated pull outs for music lessons, but would not use “safe space” in that context. As for the bullying Mr. Granata experienced as a child, sad and inexcusable but completely irrelevant.

@Colarossi, it’s not a “a fundamental ignorance as to the value of music education” that informs the BOE’s decision. It’s a fundamental knowledge of the value of fiscal responsibility, something the NFT doesn’t seem to share. On this score, @Patrick Cooper is 100% correct.

Diana June 19, 2017 at 3:41 pm

Firstly, I applaud Mr. Granata for taking a stand for Norwalk Public School’s Music Education Program, a program that has clearly shaped him into the smart, and informative concerned citizen and former student of NPS. I too participated in the Music Department program , which shaped me into the creative and half glass full individual I believe I am today. I was born with a Hearing Impairment and without West Rocks Middle School’s music department, I do not believe I would have strived to get through each school day as I had. If cuts are made to the Music Department as proposed by the BOE, Mr. Granata is correct, the students going into the highschool music field will not be where they need to be, and the program itself will never be the same. I am not here to debate, but simply to point out the obvious. The BOE is completely 100% responsible for what programs they choose to cut. Yes, the NFT has chosen not to switch healthcare to save Norwalk money, but that is not the point of this opinion piece. Music, in my experience and Mr. Granata’s experience as well, is an outlet for many students. Respectfully @Donna, you have seemed to miss the point. To say that Mr. Granata’s childhood experience, which in this case is bullying, is completely irrelevant to the situation at hand, is not something you can state as fact. Music for many students going through the music department, now and when I also atteneded school in Norwalk, is in fact an outlet for many reasons, and yes bullying is a reason. In fact, it is a VERY important reason to strongly vote to keep the music program. There is a very diverse group of students who are involved in Norwalk’s music program, whom I believe will greatly benefit from it. Thank you @Donna for pointing out that Westport Public Schools have the funds for “luxuries” such as radio stations and studios, because Norwalk clearly does not. I have worked in the town of Westport for some time now, and I love working there, but it also reminds me how important it is to remember that not every town is as affluent as Westport. Also, the Westport Music Department too was on the chopping block recently, that is something else to keep in mind when moving forward.

The BOE is elected to represent the City of Norwalk and there are other areas that they can consider to replace loss of funding.

Steve Colarossi June 19, 2017 at 3:48 pm

For some strange reason, I feel compelled to respond to people who feel that some groups are simply not entitled to the value of their contracts.

Unless you, or Mr. Cooper, or BOE Finance Cmte. Chairperson Bryan Meek can state for certain what the NFT figured into its decision to agree to the set of wages, work conditions and benefits that constituted its contract, then how can any of you state that the current insurance program is somehow superfluous and easily replaced with something else.

Within the budget there are contractual increases for transportation. Yet, no one is claiming that the bus companies are to blame for the shortfall because they are insisting on being paid what they are owed. Many central office administrators are getting raises- no one is claiming that they are contributing to the deficit because they are insisting on being paid that to which they are entitled under their contracts.

One’s attitude about public sector unions should be irrelevant because, like them or hate them, one such union (the NFT) negotiated a contract which provides for certain benefits and wages, and the law requires that contracts be enforced.

Therefore, although the BOE could have been hopeful that the NFT would forget the last time they accepted a wage concession for the benefit of the school district, the obligation existed to scrutinize the budget and find the least impactful cuts which could keep the budget balanced. The BoE Finance Committee failed to discharge this very basic duty. Therefore, the cuts being considered, and the cuts to be made, are those of the Finance Committee as they did nothing to change them.

Donna June 19, 2017 at 7:33 pm

What’s missing is the spirit of cooperation. The insurance problem accounts for half the increase over 2016-17. This is a soluble problem, except those in a position to help broker a solution–the NFT–won’t come to the table. Is the NFT obligated to trade their existing healthcare plan for a plan that is 95% similar in order to save the district millions of dollars? No. Is it the right thing to do? I believe it is. Should the switch to 2.0 be an absolute deal breaker for the NFT? I’m not convinced it should, especially if out-of-network specialists could be made available to them.

Mr. Granata wrote beautifully about his personal experiences and the positive impact Norwalk’s middle school music programs had on his life. I have a child whose experiences were similar. I am an empathetic listener to the personal story. The budgetary component, however, is not cross-linked convincingly with the personal tale of the transformative power of middle school music instruction. Auto shop is a by-gone elective in WPS. Many parents and educators fought to keep it, but the numbers just weren’t there. So respectifully, it is not economically feasible for a City like Norwalk to fund every program that hits the sweet spot for every child who doesn’t fit comfortably anywhere else but that place, but it wood shop or music or culinary arts.

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