Internationally-acclaimed jazz musician and saxophonist Ryan Kilgore was heartbroken when he learned of the cutbacks in music education in Atlanta Public Schools.
The Clark Atlanta University graduate learned to play the saxophone in metro Atlanta public schools (Southwest DeKalb High School), and Kilgore’s prodigious talents soon catapulted him onto the world stage as he traveled the globe on tours with legends like Stevie Wonder and jazz superstar Mike Phillips, as well as working with super producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, movie mogul Tyler Perry, minister Donnie McClurkin, and R&B singer Faith Evans.
What’s more is that Kilgore even started a foundation to collect and give away musical instruments for underprivileged children.
Kilgore knows that there is no way whatsoever that could have gotten to the musical heights has ascended to without music education in metro Atlanta. So you can understand his extreme disappointment with music ed cutbacks.
“I hear the excuses they use as the reason for the cutbacks is that attendance is down. And they say kids are not interested in band like they used to,” Kilgore said. “But I don’t buy it.”
He is not the only one who feels like he got punched in the gut when he learned that Atlanta Public Schools have made major cutbacks and eliminations in the orchestra and band programs during the upcoming year.
Teachers such as Arthur McClenton were in shock to learn the news.
“We (music teachers) were blindsided, when other teachers received contracts, we received letters saying we were going to be abolished. We didn’t know. It just hit us,” said McClenton.
In fact, instead of making continual cuts in music, particularly band and orchestra, Kilgore believes band and orchestra should be taught as main courses and not viewed or classified as extracurricular activities.
Kilgore’s argument is a particularly compelling one when you peruse over a particular study conducted that shows powerful connection between music and learning.
Musical training doesn’t just improve the ear for music — it also helps with a student’s ear for speech, according to a new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers found that kids who took music lessons for two years not only get better at playing the trombone or violin; they found that playing music also helped kids’ brains process language.
The study also showed particularly strong benefits for children in impoverished neighborhoods.
Meria Carstarphen, the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, took pains to counter the torrential downpour of negativity surrounding the budget cuts as well as clarify misconceptions and erroneous statements that have been leaked out.
“Due to incorrect information circulating, there is a lot of confusion about the status of music and the arts in our schools. In fact, some are suggesting that Atlanta Public Schools simply eliminated all music and arts in one fell swoop,” she said. “We have not.”
Carstarphen first pointed out that kids in APS are actually privileged in this one area, as it is one of the few districts in the state that offers band and orchestra programs.
“And this will continue to be the case,” she said resolutely, reassuring parents and students throughout the city.
Carstarphen, however, did state there will be some unfortunate cutbacks in the music programs with 10 fewer band teachers and eight fewer orchestra teachers. But she was quick to add there will still be approximately 40 band and orchestra teachers serving our schools.
“Some elementary schools will be sharing teachers (as they do now), and others did make the decision not to offer band and/or orchestra usually in situations where there were few students enrolled in those classes,” the superintendent said. “Those schools are instead using their staffing allocations for positions elsewhere in their school based on the needs of the students. Every elementary school will continue to offer a general music program, and band and orchestra programs will continue at the middle and high school levels.
Carstarphen blamed the tough budget year and subsequent decisions on cutbacks due to the entire district being over-staffed and to limited resources. “Reductions were made across the district two months ago, not just in music and fine arts, to realign teacher numbers at each school with actual enrollment. As part of our right-sizing strategy, we cut 368 full-time positions, nearly 20 percent of which came from the central office,” she said.
The APS superintendent continued by stating that individual school in APS will have the autonomy and flexibility to increase or decrease investments in the musical arts based upon interest and attendance.
“For example,” Carstarphen explains, “if principal A observed high interest in band over orchestra in their elementary school, that principal could choose to enhance the band program and remove the orchestra program. If principal B saw a growing interest in visual arts, principal B could decide to invest more in visual arts, eliminating band and orchestra. If principal C was interested in enhancing band and orchestra programs, principal C could choose to increase school class sizes in order to offer a more robust fine arts program.”
The superintendent reemphasized that band and orchestra are not being eliminated in Atlanta. “We are giving schools the choice to incorporate these fine arts as part of their general music instruction, which includes chorus, music appreciation, introduction to instruments, etc. and to be the masters of their master schedules,” she says. “At the elementary level, all of our schools must provide general music, but band and orchestra are optional offerings. As outlined by both APS and state standards, band and orchestra are offered as elective classes in all APS middle and high schools. In regards to other fine arts, we will provide, at the minimum, visual arts at all school levels— adding performing arts in high school.
Just as the federal government gives individual states the right to make decisions on certain policies, Carstarphen said she and the central APS office have empowered each individual school principal to continue or increase or decrease the commitment and investment in the musical arts, while making parents aware that the schools working within “tight budget parameters.”
“As an oboe player as well as an avid lover and supporter of the arts, I truly understand the importance of these programs to our students,” Carstarphen added. “I will do all I can to keep them as part of school district focused on providing a quality education at the highest levels of efficiency.”