West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district increases emphasis on music

  • Article by: ERIN ADLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 12, 2013 - 10:14 AM

As schools nationwide cut music offerings, the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district is doing the opposite, restoring and expanding its music programming.

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Kamilla Ruppman tested French horns to see which one she should take with her over the summer after band practice at Henry Sibley High School.

Photo: KYNDELL HARKNESS , Star Tribune

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In the year that Patrick Bents has taught band at Heritage E-STEM Magnet School in West St. Paul, he’s heard legends of the jazz band at the old junior high and pored over old trophies and band uniforms, evidence of the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district’s tradition of strong music programming.

After several years of budget reductions, some which affected music, the district spent the last year moving in the opposite direction — restoring and adding to its music offerings. By hiring music teachers, adding lessons, repairing old instruments and standardizing music instruction time across the district, West St. Paul is bucking a national trend toward erosion of music offerings in school.

“There’s something that was here that I think people would like to see again,” Bents said.

The decision to reinvest in music came after a 2011 task force recommended strengthening existing music programming and restoring things that had been cut.

“We do have a really strong tradition of music in this district,” said Katie Pearson, choir director at Friendly Hills Middle School and a task force member. Many parents and staff members “wanted staffing to be restored and opportunities back for their children.”

As a result, the district added two staff members to teach pull-out lessons for middle school band and orchestra students so kids can have small-group instruction, Pearson said.

The district also spent $50,000 to repair district-owned instruments, many of which hadn’t been fixed in years, Bents said. Other efforts include ensuring that elementary school students receive 90 minutes of weekly music instruction — previously, the amount varied by school — and allotting hours to a part-time position coordinating music districtwide, said Superintendent Nancy Allen-Mastro.

One of the district’s goals is to increase participation at all levels, but particularly in high school, where music is an elective, Allen-Mastro said.

Sizing up the first year of the program last month, Pearson reported that music participation at the secondary level was increasing, with 27 percent of high schoolers set to participate next year, comparable to 2009’s numbers.

“I feel very, very good about the direction we’re taking,” Pearson said.

Before the task force, the district had several other initiatives to encourage music participation. Three years ago, the district introduced a program to show fourth-graders the instruments available to play in middle school, rather than requiring parents to come to school for an evening presentation.

One result is that “We’re seeing increased diversity in band and orchestra,” Pearson said.

There are also extracurricular music programs, said Pearson, such as the “Summit Singers” and the jazz band at Friendly Hills.

Brenda Peralta said her eighth-grade daughter, Ana, loves being in the “Summit Singers” group, which meets twice a week before school. She’s also sung in the high school musical and performed the national anthem at a basketball game.

“I think these kids study harder once they discover their passion,” Peralta said.

Bucking a trend

The move to add or restore music programming bucks a trend in Minnesota in recent years. According to Mary Schaefle, executive director of the Minnesota Music Educators Association, the number of music teachers in Minnesota declined by 28 percent between 1999-2000 and 2009-2010.

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