An Open Letter to our Local School District

 

holiday concert 5 12_15_13 (2)
Some of the ensembles performing at the 2013 Duluth East High School holiday concert.

Dear Superintendent Gronseth and ISD 709 School Board members:

The Duluth News Tribune article “Denfeld Student Sings to Protest Dropping of Spanish Class” initially prompted my drafting of this open letter.

I suspect that many voters supporting the levy referendum last November may have voted differently if they had known cuts in critical programming were still going to occur.  The community entrusted our District with a 5-year funding commitment, including a higher-tier levy in order to:

  • Help reduce class size at all levels
  • Provide additional strategies to increase student achievement and reduce the achievement gap
  • Allow investment in innovative science curriculum

The School Board recently took the unusual step of locking in compensation increases and benefits for the next two contract cycles; hopefully, some of the additional resources provided through the generous levy vote also will be allocated in a way that allows for restoring opportunities cut in recent years.

For example, in middle school, we began to see some erosion of programs that are important for helping develop the creative critical-thinkers of the future, ones who will not only help our local community thrive, but who also will have the ability to compete in a global arena.  First, advanced English programs were cut.  And then, more recently, while the language class opportunity was retained when class periods were reduced, it was at the expense of music, pitting the two offerings against each other and forcing students to choose one or the other.  This competing course conflict has devastated our music programs at the middle school level, and inevitably will weaken the music arts opportunities at the secondary level, if allowed to continue.  The recent newspaper article entitled “Strained Duluth Schools Sing the Blues Over Music Cuts” confirms the damage being done by these budget decisions.

So, why should you care if students do not have as many opportunities for music or rigorous course offerings?  Much emphasis is placed on closing the achievement gap. It is a worthy goal, indeed, but one that is not well-served by the decisions to cut the arts and advanced course offerings. In fact, cuts such as these are counterproductive to the success of both lower-achieving and higher-achieving students.

The VH1 “Save the Music Foundation” cites many facts and studies that illustrate the importance of funding and/or restoring our public schools music programs; just a few of their insights are noted below:

Students consistently involved in orchestra or band during their middle and high school years performed better in math at grade 12. The results were even more pronounced when comparing students from low-income families. Those who were involved in orchestra or band were more than twice as likely to perform at the highest levels in math as their peers who were not involved in music.

— From Catterall, James S., Richard Chapleau, and John Iwanaga (2002),  “Involvement in the Arts and Human Development: Extending an Analysis of General Associations and Introducing the Special Cases of Intensive Involvement in Music and Theatre Arts.” In R. Deasy (Ed.), Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Achievement and Social Development, Washington, DC: AEP

 

Students at risk of not successfully completing their high school educations cite their participation in the arts as reasons for staying in school. Factors related to the arts that positively affected the motivation of these students included a supportive environment that promotes constructive acceptance of criticism and one where it is safe to take risks.

— From The Role of the Fine and Performing Arts in High School Dropout Prevention, 2002; Barry, N., J. Taylor, and K. Walls

 

Of course, both the fundamentals and the more creative fields are crucial to our economic success. The basics are not enough, though. What we really need in order to prepare our children for the creative economy is a comprehensive education, something that takes them from aesthetics to algebra without pretending that the two are mutually exclusive. We need to see to it that, from an early age, our entire population is encouraged to develop its people skills with its multiplication tables and its creative and entrepreneurial potential with its reading abilities.

— From The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent, 2005; Richard Florida

 

Results From The Elementary School Study prove that:

• Students in top-quality music programs scored 22% better in English and 20% better in mathematics than students in deficient music programs.

• These academic differences were fairly consistent across geographic regions.

• Students at the four elementary schools with high-quality music programs scored better than students participating in programs considered to be of lower quality.

Results From The Middle Schools Study

• Students in top-quality instrumental programs scored 19% higher in English than students in schools without a music program, and 32% higher in English than students in a deficient choral program.

• Students in top-quality instrumental programs scored 17% higher in mathematics than children in schools without a music program, and 33% higher in mathematics than students in a deficient choral program.

• Students at schools with excellent music programs had higher English test scores across the country than students in schools with low-quality music programs; this was also true when considering mathematics.

• Students in all regions with lower-quality instrumental programs scored higher in English and mathematics than students who had no music at all.

— Journal for Research in Music Education, June 2007; Dr. Christopher Johnson, Jenny Memmot

 

Learning in the arts nurtures motivation, including active engagement, disciplined and sustained attention, persistence and risk taking. It also increases attendance and educational aspirations.

— From Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development, Arts Education Partnership, 2002

 

To see not only a continued deficit in support for music programming in the schools, but also diminished advanced coursework offerings in the years critical to preparing for post-secondary success, is alarming, particularly following the increased investment we just voted on as a community. For top students, having a full array of challenging offerings is absolutely essential for admission at competitive schools and consideration for top scholarships. The “rigor of coursework” is always one of the most important criteria discussed for these opportunities.

The importance of academic rigor as an indicator for college readiness and success is a topic of interest in national education circles, as discussed in the CollegeBoard’s Research Report from 2010-11, as well as the Center for Public Education’s March 2012 report, “Is High School Tough Enough”. This is not just a concern for high-achieving students; providing access to rigorous coursework is important for students of all abilities, and therefore necessary as part of the plan to close the achievement gap.  The Minnesota Department of Education recognized this need in its December 2011 report, “Establishing a Statewide Plan to Ensure Rigorous Course Taking for Minnesota Students.”

In the DNT article, Principal Sconiers confirmed that Denfeld High School (one of two high schools in the community) is cutting Spanish 5 next year, and will not restore AP World History. Practically speaking, AP courses are important, along with CITS (College in the Schools) courses, to provide an opportunity for high school students to potentially earn college credit.  Given the astronomical cost of college these days, any chance to make a post-secondary education more affordable is of great importance to all families. The beauty of the AP and CITS offerings is that our high school students are still able to fully engage as part of their high school community while pursuing these rigorous, often college-level offerings.

What is really alarming about the article discussing the cut in course offerings like Spanish 5 and AP World History, though, is the statement that “it boils down to the fact she cannot afford to allocate teaching staff to courses that reach niche audiences.” Niche audiences?? Is the niche audience comprised of those students desiring to challenge themselves to the highest level, and present a resume that is competitive in the eyes of prospective employers, colleges, and scholarship committees? If our public schools’ idea of closing the achievement gap is removing some of the higher-achieving opportunities and lowering the ceiling for achievement, then I question whether the District is truly seeking to increase student achievement as expressed in the school levy goals.

Increasing student achievement should encompass all students, by helping them reach their potential and access opportunities to do so. It is not easy, but it does not mean it should not be done — and the community allocated these additional resources for such an investment. The vibrancy of our public schools, and our community at large, depends on it.

Sincerely,

Kat B.

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