Mazzocchi: ‘Great Districts Do Not Cut’ Arts Programs

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Last month, Anthony Mazzocchi, former Director of Fine and Performing Arts for the South Orange – Maplewood School District, wrote a widely read opinion piece that questioned the district’s dedication to arts education.

Shortly after, South Orange-Maplewood Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Susan Grierson emailed a letter to middle school parents explaining the new schedule and approach to performing arts and fine arts.

Here is Mazzocchi’s response to the district’s letter.

I’ve read the letter that was sent out to the middle school communities, and it certainly was not what I expected, given my previous correspondence with school officials on the subject of middle school music programs.  My discussions with administrators in district centered around their support of our music programs and how regrettable it was that other scheduling priorities have compromised the program.

But the letter our community received doesn’t express that view.  Instead of being transparent about the fact that a daily instrumental music program in the middle schools has been cut, it lays out the arguments for the new priorities.  It’s unfortunate that there is no frank admission that the priorities have shifted, and that the instrumental program has been seriously compromised.

It is also unfortunate that our community received this letter two months into the school year about program cuts that have been made, described as “changes.”  What is worse is that the letter actually tries to justify these cuts as being advantageous to students.  If any celebrated program is to be cut almost in half, wouldn’t it be proper for the middle school principals to send a letter out before the year begins, giving parents and students a heads up in an effort to be transparent and open the door for further dialogue?

Digging deeper into the letter, I am most disturbed at the attempted case being made to our community that two days a week of 40 minute rehearsals of band/orchestra, with an additional cut of 50 minutes of small group instruction per week is better for students than five days a week of 30 minute classes in addition to a 50 minutes small group lesson. There are many educators (not only arts educators) who vehemently disagree with this, myself included.

By the beginning of November a year ago, students would have received approximately 16 hours of consistent daily instruction in addition to up to almost 6 hours of small group attention.  I can guarantee you that, under this new structure, an audit of 6th grade attendance at lessons would show that many students have yet to receive much small group instruction yet at all.  Without daily instruction, students lose their skills, become frustrated and quit their instrument.  That is, unless their parents have the wherewithal to provide private instruction.  When students quit, the program shrinks, the high school program suffers, and students (especially from economically disadvantaged homes) don’t get a fair shake at a well-rounded education; perhaps they even miss their chance to realize their true passion.

Some additional thoughts on the letter:

“As we come to the end of the first quarter, we thought it might be helpful to review our new middle school schedule and our exciting new approach to electives.”

The band and orchestra program has been marginalized in order to schedule electives that meet occasionally, disguised as true instruction, aka “spotlight on strings” and “bandology.”  Administrators cut the instrumental music program based on what I call “reactive scheduling” (they schedule courses they find important, then try to fit the arts in where they can) and then try to fill in some gaps with electives, since electives meet on a different rotational schedule.  I would also add that Maplewood Middle School does not have these same courses; where is the unified curriculum between schools?

“Over the past two years, we have worked to restructure the Middle School Schedule to achieve three goals:

 *  To provide additional time for struggling students to get support during the school day;”

I remember debating this concept with my colleagues when they first brought up the concept of pulling students from the arts for extra math and English Language Arts (ELA) instruction.  My question was, “Which one of you is going to sit down with the students and their parents/guardians and explain that, according to you, they are not intelligent enough to be a member of the instrumental music program?”  Are we really doing right by students by pulling them from these courses for extra math and ELA?  Many struggling students can’t wait to come to school specifically to engage in the music and arts program; the arts are a true source of feelings of self worth for our struggling students.

*  To provide teachers with common planning time with their grade level and department; 

Band, orchestra and chorus are the perfect answer for common planning time for teachers.  Music directors enjoy over 100 students in class at the same time, which creates a perfect opportunity to give teachers common planning time.  In this letter, the district describes smaller instrumental music classes as an advantage, but that is never the case with a musical ensemble.  A genuine ensemble experience is when every student is rehearsing at the same time; mindfully listening to the other students’ musical lines; blending with their peers; experiencing the whole ensemble.  Try to imagine a sports team practicing separately and then joining up together for the first time on game day.  It’s the same concept, and it is not effective.

*  To enhance our Related Arts Program to provide students with exciting,elective options.

Our district needs to be honest about how these electives are created. It is my opinion that Principals created a schedule and realized that they would need to cut the music program, so they attempted to create opportunity (through the elective rotation) to “recoup some losses” in a small way.  They may have asked the music teachers to come up with something, and of course they obliged in the spirit of wanting to make things work.

Nothing is “enhanced” by this schedule in related arts; these are all “glimpses” of offerings here and there, with a relatively small subset of students involved compared to the previous large ensembles.

Scheduling our middle schools is not an easy task, of course. It requires mindful communication between administrators, teachers, and parents, and at this point in our district’s growth, probably an expert consultant. The resulting schedule should reflect the values of our schools and our community, as I mentioned in my last article.

It is clear that an instrumental music program that served most students in the middle schools was not a priority this year.  It is unfortunate that it takes a former employee of the district to “decode” letters written to the community; we are already consistently bewildered by eduspeak on this and many other issues.

Great districts do not cut programs that work, and that serve most students.  These districts also do not unapologetically try to justify such cuts as being better for our students.  Our community deserves consistent and transparent communication when it comes time to drastic changes in programming, no matter what the subject is.

Our community also deserves more than a mediocre music program; it deserves a great music program — for two reasons.  One, there are so many people here whose lives are about the performing arts.  And two, the heterogeneity of our school population benefits tremendously from arts programs where academic levels don’t apply, and all are welcome.

I hope and expect the district to express their support for this, and to move forward by exploring ways to restore the cuts in instrumental education. I also hope that our educational leaders in district will insist on timely and transparent communication regarding our curriculum moving forward.

Anthony Mazzocchi is former Director of Fine and Performing Arts for the South Orange/Maplewood School District, where he launched one of the first K-4 Suzuki Violin programs in New Jersey. During his stay, the district was designated “One of the Best Communities for Music Education” by the NAMM Association, and he was nominated for the first ever GRAMMY Music Educator Award by the GRAMMY Foundation. He is currently Associate Director of the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University and Executive Director of the Kinhaven Summer Music School in Vermont. Anthony currently lives in Maplewood with his wife, Deborah and their two children, Luca and Tahlia.

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