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.
Nationally, while more than 90 percent of schools offer music, instructional time has decreased. Only 10 percent of American schools offer music three times a week for half an hour or more, said Michael Butera, executive director of the National Association for Music Education.
“It’s becoming more and more unusual to have that time commitment,” he said.
But music isn’t just beneficial for music’s sake, he said.
“It’s not just about the music, it’s about the lessons it teaches and the way the brain learns to learn,” Butera said.
Thomas Lutz, a second-grader at Mendota Elementary, said he enjoyed having music three times a week this year. His music teacher was “inspiring,” he said.
He said having music class helps him do better in school — and his mom, Jennifer Lutz, said she knows there’s research to back up the connection between music and subjects like math.
Pearson said the superintendent recognizes the many benefits of music education.
“She’s said, ‘School districts that have strong music programs have strong students, strong academic programs, have kids who land scholarships,’ ” Pearson said. “[Our superintendent] sees those things as going hand in hand.”