Many Meaford parents are rightly concerned about the future of school music programs after attending a public meeting during which the initial plans for Meaford's new combined elementary and high school were unveiled.
The plans put before the public included just one music room to be shared by the elementary and high school students.
The music room included in the initial plans is smaller than the music room in the current Georgian Bay Community School, and with elementary and high school students expected to share the one room, many parents aren't happy, and I don't blame them.
This is a community that has for many years taken great pride in the music programs offered at our schools. I don't think Meaford would be quite the same if we didn't regularly see students lugging hard-cased instruments home for practise, but it isn't just the community that would be different, so would our students.
It's a sad reality that as governments and school boards grapple with ever-rising expenses, music and other arts programs often top the list of those to be curtailed or cut. There's a sense that arts programs are 'frills' as far as governments are concerned, but in my view, and the view of many, nothing could be further from the truth.
There is great value in music programs in the public school system. While learning music, students learn the importance of practising, they learn to work as part of a team just as students who participate in school sports programs learn the value of teamwork. Learning music helps shape how the mind works; it helps in areas far beyond the music room itself.
The inclination to curtail or cut music programs is not a Meaford problem, it's not a Bluewater School Board problem, or an Ontario problem – we're seeing it happen across North America and around the world. “Music could face extinction in secondary schools” read a headline on the BBC website last March. “School budget cuts hit Tucson music programs hard” was a headline in an Arizona newspaper a couple of years ago. A quick Google search will find article after article from around the world lamenting the decline in music and other arts programs in the public education system.
While the issue is not limited to one area or government body, it's also not new. A 1993 New York Times column entitled “As Schools Trim Budgets, The Arts Lose Their Place” grappled with the topic. “Arts education, long dismissed as a frill, is disappearing from the lives of many students -- particularly poor urban students. Even though artists and educators argue that children without art are as ignorant as children without math, their pleas have gone unheard as schools have struggled with budget cuts,” read the opening paragraph of the article. “Now, in a new campaign to preserve the arts in schools, supporters are taking a different tack. They argue that art classes teach the very qualities that educators believe can reinvigorate American schools: analytical thinking, teamwork, motivation, and self-discipline. A Vanishing Subject.”
Nearly 25 years later we are seeing such articles with greater frequency as more and more school boards clamp down on expenses, and in turn arts programs tend to suffer.
As one local resident told me recently in an email, “The music program is part of the heart and soul that makes the school and Meaford such a special place. There's almost a third of the high school's population in the orchestra program and with many students in the elementary school developing a passion for music, having only one music room would hurt all of the students' music education. But the GBCS Music program isn’t just a course or an extracurricular, it is a community. The music room isn’t just a classroom, it’s a place to make friends, memories, and gain confidence as a person and as a musician.”
I certainly agree. Some of my fondest memories from my elementary and high school years stemmed from the music room, and I've seen similar appreciation for school music programs from my own children. I've heard some suggest that parents can send their children to private music lessons, and that is certainly true, but the more we adopt that sort of thinking, the more we set up a system that provides more opportunity for those with means, while public school music programs allow all to access and benefit from music education no matter their parents' income level, and that's important.
While discussing the issue with someone last week they suggested that the concern was without merit, as there is no indication that the music program is in danger, it will just have to be run out of a smaller room that is shared by more students. “It's called creating efficiency,” I was told – but that's how slippery slopes initially reveal themselves: small changes followed by some more small changes followed by bigger changes.
I hope Meaford parents continue to lobby the school board and the province to provide adequate and separate music room space for the elementary and high school students in the new school, though given the path we've been travelling over the past quarter century I personally won't hold my breath.