Parent group works to save music in Cranston schools

Providence, RI – Cranston city leaders are considering a budget that would increase school funding by roughly $2 million dollars. Schools officials say that will help, but it will most likely not be enough to save instrumental music programs now in middle schools. Cranston has already cut a similar program from its elementary schools, and a group of parents has stepped in to replace it.

School has just ended on a Friday afternoon at Dutemple elementary school on the Eastern Edge of Cranston. A group of eight students gathers in the gym slash cafeteria for a band class.

"Okay a lot of things going on there some good, some we're going to fix," says teacher Alex Lucini.

He gives his fledgling musicians tips on how to read sheet music. He stops for a moment to help 5th grader Kullen White get a better sound out of his saxophone.

For students in Cranston elementary schools, this kind of music instruction used to be part of the regular school day, but last year, school officials ended the program citing budget constraints. That's when a group of parents stepped in, calling themselves Basics, an acronym for Benefiting All Students in Cranston Schools. The parents formed their own afterschool program to make up for the cuts.

"That was actually the battle cry, was just fix it," says Pete Kelleher.

Kelleher is the parent of two Cranston students and the music director for the new afterschool program. He says parents were tired of seeing programs disappear from their public schools.

"Our goal is to get instruments into kids hands," he says. "I would much rather have a kid pick up a violin, go through 16 weeks of our program then say I hate this, I wanna go play soccer, than have an elected official say it's not an option for you."

Cranston school officials have sued their city twice for more funding, but they lost both lawsuits, in part because of an audit that says the state does not require districts to offer instrumental music. That left Cranston with a significant deficit and few good options says School Committee Member Stephanie Culhane

It's very frustrating because everybody knows what these programs provide for students. If you look at continually the top let's even just say 10 kids in the graduating classes of our high schools? They've all been musicians, so the benefit of these programs in overwhelming and its undeniable," says Culhane.

"But what we had to be committed to do was to follow the audit report and these programs, regrettably are not part of the Rhode Island Department of Education's Basic Education Plan," she says.

Cranston high school junior Becky Rose demonstrates breath technique for a student learning to play the flute in the basics afterschool program. She came to love music when Cranston elementary schools offered instrumental music, and was shocked when she heard it would be cut.

"I think the portrait the scream is accurate. Its just, yes I understand the economy is bad, but these are the people of the future," says Rose.

She says she worries about students who won't have the same opportunities she did, and she wonders what will happen to Cranston's high school music ensembles without a pipeline to develop talent.

"Kids need to start young so that they can get the muscle memory going. Their brains are still learning different parts of language, and Music is like a language," Rose says.

For instructor Alex Lucini, teaching that language to students is even more important today than ever before.

"Right now we're starting to come into a society that has a very difficult time communicating face to face. We text, we twitter we facebook. We have very little face to face communication," says Lucini. "I'm not trying to train students for Juliard, I'm hopefully training them so they join their church choirs and they form garage bands. I want every person to be active finding a way to express themselves."

Parents say the response to their Basics music program has exceeded their expectations. More than 200 students signed up for the first semester, nearly the same number who did instrumental music when it was offered during the school day. And parents from several communities have approached BASICS about organizing similar programs in their districts. BASICS' Music director Pete Kelleher says the group might expand.

"We've been approached by someone who would love to run a drama program, a glee club. There's all these wonderful ideas," says Kelleher. "We didn't start this to be a programming group, but then again if these are all programs that were once offered, why not? "

Some critics say there may be a reason why not. Parent involvement can vary from one year to the next, making the longevity of this type of program questionable. And then there is the fee issue. Basics charges $75 per semester though it does offer some scholarships. Teachers say any fee discourages some students from participating.

Stephanie Culhane from the Cranston school board says she worries this is not the right solution for the long term.

"Once a program like this is paid for by outside sources, then it never comes back. There is never that savings minded thing of we need to figure out how to put it back in the budget. And that would be the shame of this program," says Culhane.

Back at DuTemple Elementary School, 6th grader Aricelis O'Brien grins impishly at the din her clarinet section is making. She thinks the new afterschool program is an improvement over what the district used to offer.

"This year its better because last year she really didn't show us how to read notes and this we're learning to play notes and its just like funner than last year," says O'Brien.

O'Brien says she plans to continue playing the clarinet when she gets to middle school next year, but she may not have that opportunity. The Cranston school budget calls for the elimination of band and string instruments at district Middle Schools, and Basics organizers say they are not sure they are ready to add more grades to their program.

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