South Whidbey teachers fight the arts ax

As the final notes fade from this week’s Youth in Arts musical performances, some on South Whidbey are wondering if the commitment to arts education will also disappear into the ether in the near future.

The South Whidbey School District is facing a $1.9 million budget gap and the potential loss of dozens of teachers. Already, 37 teachers and school staff members have gotten word they may lose their jobs, and in that group, at least eight teach some sort of art instruction in local schools.

The impending layoffs have some wondering if the golden age of art instruction in South Whidbey schools — a period that has been marked by national acclaim for student artists and musicians — is coming to an end.

Some fear that when the district eyes potential budget cuts, arts programs and activities will be near the top of the list.

Jessica Foley is the Langley Middle School Director of Bands who teaches fifth- through eighth- graders band and jazz band. Her students will perform during Youth In Arts at WICA on Tuesday, April 28.

“I truly find it very sad to hear that next year there are possibilities of the LMS Jazz Band being non-existent and seventh- and eighth-grade bands being combined,” Foley said.

“I understand that right now is a money crisis, but still, as I will until the day I die, I wish to advocate for the arts,” she said.

Dedication to arts

Here on South Whidbey, a cluster of dedicated teachers and parents have long identified with the concept that art is important to every child’s ability to learn.

Each year they organize a series of performances and exhibits for the annual Youth In Arts program, an ambitious undertaking that spreads artwork across a multitude of venues on South Whidbey, from post office lobbies that transform into galleries for student artwork, to impromptu student performances outside local hotspots such as Island Coffeehouse, to more formal concerts in the South End’s premiere venues.

The program, or course, is the result of the devotion of the teachers, schools, parents and students and community who work to maintain a strong arts presence in the education of children on South Whidbey, no matter what their economic means.

That dedication stems from their own experience with art and the oft-quoted statistics done by researchers who have proven that the study of music, dance, theater and visual arts are an essential part of a good education.

The questions now being asked by some teachers are: When will the arts curriculum matter enough to everyone? Why is art in all grades and all schools important? And why is art always the first subject to face cuts?

AnnRene Joseph, the arts supervisor for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Washington state, is an advocate for the arts in schools and helped to create the current requirements and policies for arts curriculum in Washington’s schools.

Joseph recently spent a day on South Whidbey and concluded that support for arts education from the district’s administration was “outstanding” due to what Joseph said was Superintendent Fred McCarthy’s extraordinary support.

But then there’s the unrelenting reality of the economic downturn. A decrease in school enrollment, paired with all-around budgetary constraints for Washington state, has forced the hand of the district to cut costs. District officials must reduce the budget by 11 percent, the highest decrease in the state.

Right now, some expect the cuts to be dire.

“We have heard that the administration is planning on cutting K-5 music and art classes by 66 percent,” said Kimmer Morris, a part-time music teacher at the intermediate school.

District officials say the picture is not quite that grim, but students in kindergarten through fifth will have to wait a week between art classes.

McCarthy said by combining the primary and intermediate schools to form the South Whidbey Elementary School, the district has managed to keep art and music instruction for 50 minutes every other week for kindergarten through fifth grade.

McCarthy said because the community is so rich with artists, a specialist will be teaching art classes, even though the state does not require it.

“We think it is important to have a specialist. Making art available is a centerpiece, even with the cutting of so many personnel,” McCarthy said.

“I think art is very important from my own point of view. We’ll do everything we can to promote the arts and keep quality art programs in the schools,” he said.

Teachers’ pleas

But many of the arts teachers here say that although the administration may be trying its best, it is not listening to those who have been in the art-program trenches for a long time.

Ashley McConnaughey, a Youth In Arts organizer and the dramatic arts teacher at Whidbey Island Academy, is on the list of those who may lose their jobs.

“What is troubling is that it appears the cuts were made without having a clear understanding of what we want to have the district look like, and what we need to keep in place and nurture to make sure we don’t cut or cripple a program that is truly in the district’s interest to keep or expand,” McConnaughey said.

Morris is equally as frustrated.

“I don’t understand why we are offering a third foreign language at the high school and not funding choirs at the elementary or middle school,” Morris said.

“I don’t understand why we offer sports for small interest groups when over 600 elementary students are losing half of their music and art curriculum,” she said.

Art is important

The Washington State Arts Commission maintains that art is necessary to a well-rounded education. The commission believes that learning through the arts often means greater academic achievement and higher test scores.

Joseph, from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, said the state can only do so much. She said districts have to do their best during this time of dire economic reality.

“My role is to make a way for all students to have access to quality instruction in the arts, by building a systemic system of laws, policies, free resources, available professional development, research and support,” she said.

“We have done that and continue to do so. The new basic-education bill has passed out of the Legislature and is awaiting the governor’s signature. That bill will require two credits of the arts for all students to graduate from our high schools by the year 2018.

“It is historic, and Washington state is the first in the nation to do so.” she added.

Joseph said she wants nothing more than to see the good intentions of district leaders such as McCarthy come to fruition.

Hard reality can derail the best of intentions, however.

“What’s happening now is that there just isn’t any money,” Joseph said.

“It’s a district, statewide and global crisis. But, with that in mind, Fred McCarthy is an amazing superintendent and was integral in helping to write State Superintendent Randy Dorn’s statement of support, which encourages all the schools in our state to include art in schools,” she said. “My encouragement now is, use all the creativity, vision and imagination of the district and make the basics happen.”

It’s gotta give

Linda Good, a founder and teacher at Island Strings and a music teacher at Whidbey Island Academy is on the list, as well. Her advanced strings students will play during Youth In Arts on Wednesday, April 29 at WICA.

“I’ve been trying for 40 years to get a string program in the schools, and we finally have a fledgling class at the Whidbey Island Academy,” Good said. “But now the threat is that we eliminate it and the middle school band teacher.

“As we celebrate Youth in Arts this month, let us figure out how to protect arts in the schools,” she added.

Like Foley, Morris is personally devoted to her students’ exposure to the arts and has gone above and beyond to maintain it.

She has taught music at the district for 24 years, and additionally guides student math teams, is the Math Olympiad coach, the Junior Waste Warriors Program Leader, the Highly Capable Learner liaison and the intermediate school Youth In Arts director.

Her intermediate school music students will perform Thursday, April 30 at WICA.

“Teachers keep volunteering ‘extra time’ (what extra time?) to keep our programs going. I get four stipends only because I asked after

18 years,” Morris said.

“I am not convinced that parents will still send their children to our district if teachers quit volunteering to provide exceptional programs. Quality schools have quality programs that are funded by the district, not by teachers having to find funding on their own,” Morris said.

Morris said ultimately that now is the time to rethink the district’s commitment to the arts.

“Look at the districts which have underfunded the arts and see where their youth have gone for their amusement,” she said.

“Ask yourself, ‘What kind of community do we want?’ Then ask our administrators to support arts programs.”

Signs of solidarity

One way teachers have banded together is by organizing an event called “50-50” at which at least 50 teachers and 50 parents can voice their concerns and brainstorm around how things might be changed to save teachers’ jobs and protect the educations of children.

The meeting will take place on National Teachers Day at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 5 at Grigware Hall in Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland.

Morris said at a recent 50-50 in Arlington, parents and teachers came up with 150 ways to rearrange the budget to save teachers’ jobs.

“Anyone concerned about art in the schools should attend,” Morris said.

The South Whidbey community has been an avid supporter of the arts. Children benefit from that support both in and out of school with private art programs and teachers who combine resources to bolster what children learn in school.

Whidbey Children’s Theater, Whidbey Island Dance Theatre, Island Dance, Island Strings and Whidbey Island Center for the Arts have all worked with community schools toward supporting the artistic needs of students and actively participate in the Youth In Arts program.

The Whidbey Island Community and Youth Orchestras and the Saratoga Chamber Orchestra, local private music teachers, and organizations such as the South Whidbey Commons, Island Coffeehouse & Books, and the South Whidbey Youth Connection, too, have all been instrumental in supporting the artistic endeavors of South End youths.

But it takes more than a village to raise an artist, and sometimes school is the only place some students of lower economic means can study music, theater or visual art.

Larry Heidel, a private trombone teacher and musician who teaches many of the children in the community, sees an arts outlet as a dire need for some children.

“These are the children that are particularly vulnerable, as their access to expression will be muted by the funding cuts,” Heidel noted.

“The arts can create a ‘safe-place’ for exploring and creating, and is an important outlet for kids that may feel isolated for whatever reason, some place to turn as a way to cope with the challenges presented,” he said.

McCarthy said he will do all he can to face such challenges, including working with the Whidbey Island Arts Council, which is currently applying for an arts in education grant from the Washington State Arts Commission to create a consortium for art at island schools. Such a program lends a modicum of hope to the present situation, hope that the teachers could use.

Mary McLeod, the art teacher at South Whidbey Intermediate School, said she sees the importance of showing the community what the students are learning.

“I think we need to see more evening programs which demonstrate music and other arts that go on in our community.

“It is a good way to advocate for our programs,” she said.

“This will be almost impossible with this proposed reduction in our arts programs,” McLeod added.

Many teachers are simply flabbergasted that the district would allow certain aspects of arts education to fall by the wayside.

“There are 10 children from Whidbey Island that are in the Everett Youth Symphony. We have a lot of children with talent here,” McConnaughey said. “It’s important to get the infrastructure back into the schools to support our own strings program and other arts programs.”

Glory days

Youth In Arts is a chance for teachers and students to show the result of arts in education. It is for many of these students “their day in the sun.”

The questions remain: Will this be the last year for Youth In Arts? Will there be enough teachers who are dedicated to the arts to organize such a comprehensive event?

“So many people told me how amazed they were at what these young kids could do,” said Leslie Woods, the music teacher at South Whidbey Primary School.

She recalled the school’s annual Spring Concert, and the reaction from parents and other teachers.

“We sang, danced, played instruments and acted out parts. The children glowed with the pride they felt in their accomplishments,” she said.

Woods is one of the teachers who has received notice that they may be laid off.

“I have seen so many kids blossom as they have taken risks musically and challenged themselves to sing a solo or play a percussion instrument.

Many kids have told me they look forward to music all week — so I know creative expression is one of the things that kids look forward to in school,” she said.

For a schedule of Youth In Arts events Click here.

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