Amid chorus of opposition, Stonington board holds off on plan for non-mandatory music program

Amid chorus of opposition, Stonington board holds off on plan for non-mandatory music program

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STONINGTON — In a show of solidarity, parents, students, teachers and graduates — 38 in all — extolled and defended the Stonington School District’s mandatory middle school music program. They talked for 90 minutes at the Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, and in the end they were successful, as the board asked school administrators to hold off on a proposal to change the program.

Under the restructuring plan, band and chorus classes now offered in fifth grade during the school day would have become an optional activity for fourth and fifth graders before or after school. The new schedule would take effect after the middle school consolidation takes place in September 2019 and fifth graders move back to the elementary school buildings. 

The opponents of the plan said that subtracting band and chorus time would dilute and eventually destroy the district’s successful music program, which depends on early instrumental instruction. The music backers also said that the middle schools’ consolidaiton would be a chance to bring band and chorus to fourth graders as well. 

Sue Johnston, a retired band teacher from the East Lyme Public schools, said fewer students would win regional and state musical competitions if music lessons were reduced to before- or after-school options.

“By putting instrumental music before or after school, you’re making it extracurricular and you’re saying this is not important,” she said. “And lots of families and single parents cannot take kids to school early or pick them up, so it will only be wealthier kids who will do music.” 

Band or chorus now is mandatory in middle school and the new proposal would have offered students other choices such as creative writing, crossfit and photography 

Ryan O’Dell, a high school student who has played the alto saxophone for seven years, said he was against giving middle school students those kinds of choices. 

“Having younger students make a decision at an early age is not beneficial,” he said. “If it had been optional, we wouldn’t have done it. Now I stand here as an accomplished musician, but if given the option to forgo it, I don’t believe I would have done band.” 

Parent Harriet Statchen said Stonington’s music program is “a jewel in the crown” and that delaying instrumental instruction until sixth grade would put students two years behind other districts. She said Stonington was saving money by consolidating the schools, which should mean additional opportunities, not cutting a “wildly successful program.” 

Superintendent Van Riley said the proposal had been structured to preserve the successes of the elementary math, language arts, and science programs. 

“As you know our two elementary schools are our highest performing schools. We’re trying to continue with what is successful — we have the most success in reading, math and science at the elementary level, and the growth factor of students who start out behind and then catch up is really amazing, and we did not want to interfere with that progress,” he said. “With the fifth grade transition back to the elementary level, we struggled with the elective program, particularly with the music program, and either we made a major change to the schedule that is our most successful or we tried to come up with something else.” 

In asking the administration to revisit the proposal, board member Deborah Downie said it was too soon in the school consolidation process to make a decision about the music program. 

“I feel like we’re putting cart before the horse,” she said. “We need to continue to offer an excellent music program but we’re jumping the gun by trying to finalize the music part.” 

Riley said the administration would put together some options, showing the impact of various schedules across all subject areas. 

“We’re going to come up with several things,” he said. “If we put band every other day in fourth and fifth grade, what do we lose? There’s only so many minutes in a day.”


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