Principals make the call on arts education, but thin budgets often force them to rely on outside help.
The silence inside some schools can be deafening.
No singing, no music and, for some students, very little that isn't tested, assessed or evaluated to determine the worth of their education.
School boards and superintendents when making budget cuts often take the first whack at music and other fine arts education, said Mary Schaefle, executive director of the Minnesota Music Educators Association.
A statewide survey is underway to determine just how deep the lacerations are. The results will probably tell Schaefle something she already knows: Arts education has taken a beating.
With grants and fundraiser proceeds, students and staff at Jenny Lind School in far north Minneapolis are fighting back.
Principal Aura Wharton-Beck and music teacher Stacy Aldrich are nurturing a pint-sized string orchestra, the only one at a North Side elementary school. More than 100 first- and second-grade students are playing violins in twice-a-week 15-minute lessons.
Wharton-Beck wants to make culture part of the daily routine at Jenny Lind, a school named for a renowned 19th century Swedish soprano.
During breakfast, students listen to Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and other classical composers in the cafeteria.
"We have high poverty, high mobility, but high expectations," Wharton-Beck said. "We're trying to make sure we give students the right foundation to take off."
Music teachers on decline
But it's not been easy. She and Aldrich had to secure funds from the VH1 Save the Music Foundation to buy the initial batch of violins.
They've wheeled and dealed with music stores to pick up used instruments as they push to add a grade per year to their orchestra.
Although the Minneapolis School District hasn't cut its fine-arts budget in years, that doesn't mean things haven't changed.
In Minneapolis, principals decide the when, where and how of education spending in their buildings. If test scores take a nosedive, money reserved for a music or art teacher may instead fund a reading specialist or math coach. The decision often depends on whether the school leader sees the arts as extracurricular or essential.
The number of music teachers in Minnesota has decreased by 28 percent since 2000, Schaefle said.
The decrease means larger and shorter classes for the students who receive any instruction at all, she said.
Since 2005, nine other Minneapolis schools have relied on startup money from the Save the Music Foundation to get their music programs started.
Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, has described the lack of fine arts education in some buildings as "immoral."
"It's like we're taking childhood development out of school," Nordgren said. "Sometimes singing helps you learn to read."
The way things stand, parents of Jenny Lind students could face a tough choice. The children would have to ditch neighborhood middle schools for K-8 buildings, charters or the suburbs to continue their music studies once they leave the fifth grade.
'Dress rehearsal for life'
When students prepare to play for Aldrich, the music teacher, he spells out instructions like he's reading from a Disco how-to guide: Instrument in the garage. Feet together. Open the garage. Statue of Liberty.
His lessons are filled with tutorials on finger placement and the proper method for chin-shoulder sandwiches.
"Hopefully, they have learned things in my class that they can take into the real world," said Aldrich, a professional musician who plays double bass in several Minnesota orchestras. "Part of their identity is going to be as a musician, and the responsibility and respect that comes with that."
Wharton-Beck knows firsthand that Aldrich connects with his budding musicians.
When her own son was a first-grader at Ramsey International Fine Arts Center, Aldrich helped teach him to play the cello. Almost a decade later, Martin Alexander-Beck still plays the instrument as a member of the South High orchestra.
"You do the early investment, you'll get the return," she said. "School is a dress rehearsal for life."
Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491