My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Monday, February 9, 2009

My View on Music

I was not going to do a new entry tonight ... but after reading a series of emails from parents, and kids, and then hearing from someone that I was being described as the driving force behind eliminating instrumental music in our district (!), I feel compelled to write something. First, let me say that I still have NOT seen the current cuts, so I do not technically know whether instrumental music is being proposed as a cut. However, I've now learned from teachers that they have been told this is on the list, so I imagining that this is true.

The instrumental music program in the elementary schools (band, orchestra) costs a bit under $200,000 a year. This is therefore a big ticket item, and particularly since it is not something that is tested on the MCAS (and actually takes time out of the school day from subjects that are on the MCAS). So, it was pretty obvious (as I've predicted for weeks/months now) that this was going to be a likely cut when we are trying to find a million or so in the budget to save.

And I think cutting instrumental music is a very BAD idea. (The rest of this is all now my opinion, for those who aren't keen on opinion stuff -- this is your warning). Here's why I think it is a bad idea:

1. Our music program benefits ALL kids. We offer this program at ALL schools. We offer it cheap so that kids whose parents can't afford private lessons can still participate. When we cut instrumental music in the elementary schools, those kids from wealthy backgrounds will get private lessons. The kids from less wealthy backgrounds just won't play an instrument. In a district focused on social justice, this seems like an outrageous cut to me. We have a rich music program at the MS and HS ... but this program will be just destroyed if we cut music at the elementary level (or it will be almost entirely composed of kids from wealthier backgrounds).

2. The music program at the elementary school level may be the hook that keeps some kids motivated/excited by school. I've heard from many parents that music is the one thing that their kid loves about school. I've heard from parents that music is the one area in which their child gets self-esteem and self-confidence. Different kids have different gifts and skills and talents and abilities ... and taking an opportunity away from kids who have passion about music seems wrong.

3. Lots of research indicates a connection between music education and other types of learning (especially math, but other areas as well). It is good for the brain.

I've written a lot in earlier posts and how I prioritize things, and again, I haven't seen the list of cuts, so I can't comment on the merit of any of them. But I'll tell you one thing I'd find very easy -- if we have a choice between keeping instrumental music (which benefits ALL kids at ALL schools and has advantages for the music program in the middle and high school) or keeping Marks Meadow open (which benefits at most 13% of the district, and at probably three times the cost of instrumental music), the choice for me is clear. So, once again (like it or not), I want to be very clear about where I stand (Stefan, I expect I'll hear from you in like 10 seconds).


Neil said...

If what you are saying is that we can reorganize at the administrative level while keeping the same portfolio of educational opportunities for our students, then I like your priorities.

Why should we cut music, science labs, theater or even athletics to keep buildings open for greater convenience?

The work the school board is doing know is being done by necessity out of a need to get costs in line with revenue but if you think about it, its the kind of work a school board should do when money is plentiful so that our schools don't cost more than they must.

Let's keep our fine school programs and find ways to do so for less cash.

LarryK4 said...

Music is also instrumental in helping kids to learn a new language (especially a lyrically one like Chinese)

The Way I See It said...

Social justice has much more significance than making sure that the disadvantaged continue to have weekly 30 minute music lessons! My children enjoy music too, but they enjoy excellent teaching and learning, and a supportive community even more! Is it just to close a school that is doing so well? What Is just about closing a school with such a diverse makeup instead of including it as part of a well thought out redistricting plan? Neil, it is much more than keeping a building open for convenience! I think that really is a simplification of the problem-it is about people, not a building!

Catherine, since you are such an advocate for excellence in education, you need to examine why a school like Mark's Meadow does so well academically and has some of the top MCAS scores for 6th graders in the state! It is especially informative since Mark's Meadow is so diverse economically and culturally and other top MCAS scoring towns and cities tend to be more homogeneous culturally and at the higher end of the economic scale. I daresay that although music may have a beneficial effect o learning, excellent teaching and a community where every child feels valued and appreciated for being himself or herself, has a greater influence on good learning. I know that my children feel that way and do very well on MCAS tests even though they are not members of the "majority" population in Amherst.

There are other ways to save programs like music. Catherine, I believe that people thik that you are behind the keep music programs or close Mark's Meadow push because of statements that you have made here and elsewhere and because of a letter that has been circulating that was sent out (I received one too) to a list of people about saving music. I don't even know how I got on the list. However, it appears that it was written by one of your colleagues at Amherst College. I love the arts too, but this rush to put Mark's Meadow on the chopping block without further study and deliberation about viable options is bordering on negligence.

Larry, I learned a foreign language early without the use of music, and yes, English is my first language!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Dear Neil, Larry, and "The Way I See It,"

I totally believe we should be spending more money on stuff that impacts kids directly -- and that means spending less on administrative staff to keep four elementary schools open. I do prioritize music, language, science, etc. over four buildings. The reality is we have a very limited budget -- and therefore we must choose very wisely how to spend our dollars in the best possible way.

And yes, I agree that social justice is about more than music -- it is also about homework clubs, intervention teachers, and guidance counselors -- all things that will be cut ALONG with music to keep Marks Meadow open. I know that the staff and teachers at Marks Meadow are caring, thoughtful educators -- and I therefore have every confidence that these strengths are part of WHO they are, and not the building in which they work. I believe they will still be caring, thoughtful educators even if they move to Wildwood! I actually agree completely with "the way I see it" -- it is about PEOPLE, not a BUILDING.

It is not surprising to me that kids in Marks Meadow do well academically -- they are the children of professors and graduate students! Those kids would do well in another school (in fact, probably any other school). It is important not to mistake correlation with causation here.

One more point -- I'm not behind the push to save music ... one of my colleagues at Amherst College has circulated a letter, and I commend him for doing so -- because music is so often looked at as an "extra". But I totally agree with this push, and I think his letter has resonated with the community (in part because keeping Marks Meadow open in reality ONLY benefits those families at that school; keeping music benefits ALL children, including those at Marks Meadow).

One more thing -- how in the world do we save music AND keep Marks Meadow open? I can guarantee you I've looked at the budget lines for literally hundreds of hours and the ONLY possible way to accomlish this is to have class sizes of 30+ in all grades at all schools. Is that really what you are suggesting? Again, I'm looking for solutions to the very real budget crisis, and I've suggested how I would prioritize options. Tell me what you would cut that would allow us to save both Marks Meadow and music (that is finding a million in a our budget). This is a serious question.

The Way I See It said...

"It is not surprising to me that kids in Marks Meadow do well academically -- they are the children of professors and graduate students! Those kids would do well in another school (in fact, probably any other school). It is important not to mistake correlation with causation here."

That really is a generalization and being the child of a professor or graduate student is no guarantee of academic success, even if it factors into the equation. Clearly, other factors count just as much or more whether it is "correlation or causation". Mark's Meadow is not the only school where there are children who have parents that are professors and graduate students.

I know that my children will do fine at whatever school they attend because I stay involved in their educations and they already had the benefit of excellent teaching in a wonderful enviroment. I also know that there are excellent teachers at the other schools, and I have met many of them. I know that Mark's Meadow teachers will be excellent teachers whether they stay at Mark's Meadow or teach in another building. I just think that there are other solutions and when I and other members of the Amherst community can see the actual data on the alternatives, then maybe we can suggest some solutions but it appears that any solutions that have been proposed that do not involve closing Mark's Meadow are immediately dismissed as unworkable.

It is a matter of principle and thoroughess of the process for me-even if Mark's Meadow has to close, at least the School Committee and the Amherst Commuity needs to carefully and objectively look at the alternatives before using extreme measures to balance the budget. As my grandmother used to say, "you don't cut off your nose to spite your face!"

Class sizes are going to go up if Mark's Meadow closes and clearly, I am not advocating class sizes of 30! We need to reduce the number of administrators at the schools. There are much larger districts that manage with many less administrators and do not have two principals in a building and multiple administrators.

Neil said...

Let's agree that we have a substantial budget shortfall and excess capacity in our four elementary schools in the near term and long term.

If we have an opportunity to consolidate at an administrative level and keep the portfolio of educational opportunities the same while retaining the best teaching and administrative talent, why would we not?

I have no opinion about how to conduct the consolidation, I just believe it is the right course of action.

If you are opposed to consolidation make the argument for a feasible plan.

If you are for consolidation make are argument for how to do it.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

I. I'm ready and eager to hear solutions that let us keep Marks Meadow open AND let us keep the music program. I've heard two suggested: override (won't pass, no way) and charge kids fees (would fall massively short of the necessary funds). If you have other solutions, send them along.

2. I vote for consolidation for two reasons: it reduces administrative/support costs involved in keeping four schools open so it maintains art/music/small class sizes; it allows us to create three moderate sized schools that are balanced in terms of socioeconomic class (not the massive inequity we now have in our schools).

Stefan Petrucha said...

Hi Catherine!

Thanks for mentioning me, but I really don’t have anything to say until I’ve seen and had a chance to mull the numbers – glad they’ll be finally available despite recent delays.

Meanwhile, the fact that the conversation’s gone from “Close MM or lose Music AND Art AND charge bus fees” a week or so ago to “Close MM or lose Music” leads me to believe the shortfall, while I’m sure it will be bad, won’t be as catastrophic as predicted earlier.

That alone, I hope, will increase our flexibility, our choices, and decrease the panic.

See you tonight!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Stefan: Sorry, don't want to get your hopes up ... the conversation tonight will definitely NOT be close MM or save music. In my opinion, the options are pretty dismal (maybe you'll disagree). Catastrophic is a big word, and I don't think is an accurate portrayal of the numbers. But let's just say that I think the possible choices will be very, very clear after tonight's discussion, and I do hope then that we will be able to have a reasonable conversation about what we should do to move forward. But let's just say I'm not going to need to do that major apologizing you were hoping for about my dire predictions!

Anonymous said...

Talk about getting people worked up before we are able to see this info. That is not ok in my opinion. Sorry. I know it's bad but this could had waited until tonight. Really!!!
Yes EVERYONE SHOULD GO TO THE MEETING TONIGHT!!! Do you really have to get into this again before the rest of us get to see it? Do you really need to rub it in our faces that you have the info and we don't?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Listen, if you don't want information, don't read this blog! I didn't start with saying that ANYTHING about the numbers, but then I worried that I had misled people because of what Stefan implied that it wasn't going to be bad. Again, you will get the numbers in four hours -- getting the numbers early is the special treat I get for being on School Committee and spending 40 hours as a week as a VOLUNTEER working for the schools, so that I can get attacked by people posting as "anonymous".

maryd said...

Thank you for keeping us informed and preparing us for the reality of the "numbers." Since I can't attend the meeting I am looking forward to your post later. I hope it will be as detailed as you have been so far.
Thank you for all of your work!

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but I really do have a problem with your statement that kids in MM do well academically because they are the children of professors and graduate students.
My children have done quite well academically-National Honor Society (when ARHS was part of the organization),and Dean's lists. Surprise-neither my husband or I are graduate students or professors.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Hi, Mary and Anonymous:

Mary: Don't worry -- I'll update my blog sometime tonight (though I imagine it will be a LATE meeting).
Thanks for appreciating my work!

Anonymous: I did NOT say that only kids of graduate students and professors do well. Obviously kids from a range of backgrounds and experiences can and do do very well. But I also believe that it is highly likely that academic families are particularly focused on education, and that one could easily explain a lot of the good performance at certain grade levels at Marks Meadow on the distinct population that is at this school, which I imagine includes more academic families than the other schools. That doesn't seem implausible to me at all -- and again, that isn't to imply that all professors/graduate students' kids do well or that other kids don't.

My key point is that I do NOT believe that it is the Marks Meadow environment per se (the building) that leads to that success. There are kids at all of the schools who do well on the MCAS and other tests -- good learning and achievement can and does occur at ALL schools, because we have good, caring, and smart teachers AT ALL OF THE SCHOOLS!

Anonymous said...

Here's what you said:

It is not surprising to me that kids in Marks Meadow do well academically -- they are the children of professors and graduate students!

Here's what I said:I'm sorry, but I really do have a problem with your statement that kids in MM do well academically because they are the children of professors and graduate students.
Notice the word "only" is not in my post. I still feel your original post can be seen by some as a classist statement. My kids did well in their elementary,secondary, and now continue to do well in their college years because of their hard work, our encouragement, and the hard work of excellent teachers. The fact that I work in the service industry was never a factor in their success. If they failed academically I would hope that it would not be considered a factor in their failure.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...


Here's what you said:

My kids did well in their elementary,secondary, and now continue to do well in their college years because of their hard work, our encouragement, and the hard work of excellent teachers.

And I agree -- sure, those things all matter. And I say that in all four of our elementary schools, kids can work hard, get encouragement from others, and have excellent teachers. That is the only key thing -- my initial statement was in response to a poster (can't even remember if it was you) who said that Marks Meadow kids do so well academically. I maintained then, and I maintain now, that those kids are doing well for a variety of reasons that have NOTHING to do with the physical space of Marks Meadow. We have kids in all four elementary schools scoring very well on the MCAS because of the dedicated teachers and staff at all FOUR of the buildings. I know the Marks Meadow families feel strongly about their school -- but the other schools are also full of caring, smart, dedicated, excellent teachers (even Fort River, the largest of the schools). You can call me "classist" because throwing out that personal attack makes it easier to dismiss my point ... as you post anonymously. But the only point that I've had, and that I continue to make, is that the physical space of Marks Meadow is VERY unlikely to be the CAUSE of good performance of the kids in this building.

Anonymous said...

"But I also believe that it is highly likely that academic families are particularly focused on education"

So does that mean that I'm more likely to not be focused on education because I receive my paycheck from ringing on a cash register?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...


This blog is my attempt to communicate about issues impacting education at a critical time in Amherst. I can't see how your comment, which is obviously designed to just create the feeling that I'm biased in some way FOR RESPONDING TO A PERSON WHO ASSUMES THAT MARKS MEADOW PROVIDES A SUPERIOR EDUCUATION THAT CREATES BETTER MCAS SCORES (which I disupte), contributes to any solutions towards the budget crisis at all. If you believe that Marks Meadow creates a better learning environment that LEADS to better scores, state that and back it up. But making ridiculous attacks (while posting anonymously) that attempt to portray me as biased in some way just aren't constructive.

Anonymous said...

"But the only point that I've had, and that I continue to make, is that the physical space of Marks Meadow is VERY unlikely to be the CAUSE of good performance of the kids in this building."

I have to say that for kids with ADHD and other audio sensory issues, Marks Meadow is a key BUILDING for them. These kids do much better there than they would in partial wall classrooms. They would be lost.

So would we then bus all these kids to CF so they could even have a chance at receiving a good education?

Would we be looking at having more Paras and SPED teachers for all the kids who would need more help than they are receiving now, if they were to go to WW or FR?

Has this particular issue been looked at by the administration?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...


I don't know if you are the same person or a different person (as the other anonymous), but this seems like a really important point. I don't think anyone has looked at this issue of particular kids going to particular buildings (other than, frankly, trying to keep groups of MM kids together). If there are issues that you think would help make learning easier for SOME kids if we need to close a school, I'd be very, very interested in hearing those and trying to work towards a solution. Let me know (via this blog or through my private email) if you have ideas on this, OK?

Meg Rosa said...

Hi Catherine!
One of my three children is ADHD so I have come to personally understand, as a parent, the difficulties associated with learning disabilities in a public school system. I posted the questions about the ADHD kids.

From my experience many ADHD children have trouble focusing on what is right in front of them when there are distractions, so I can only imagine what learning would be like for him in an open environment like WW and FR. My family has been lucky that the services offered by MM for these types of learning disabilities have allowed him to learn in a healthy setting while keeping him up to speed with his peers and in the classroom.

As a parent and a PTA co-chair, I have met a lot of other families and kids that share similar learning barriers. Many of them, including families that don't have a learning disability have chosen MM for a specific reason: the layout of the building and classrooms. MM provides small enclosed rooms that eliminate external sounds that can distract more easily when they have difficulty focusing on one task at hand.

The building does matter to these kids. These kids would easily be lost in the other schools. So, yes, maybe putting these kids in CF is an answer if we were to close MM. That is a long drive from North Amherst though (about 15-20 minutes from my house) How do families feel about that? Is that possible to do? Can we get a idea of the amount of these kids from the various schools? Are there rooms that could be used at WW and FR to make learning easier for these kids? That also brings up the point that these kids should be in their classrooms as much as possible, with their peers.

For the record, this is not the main reason I am running for SC. This is a very important part of the reason though. The quality of ALL the children's education is why I am running!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Hi, Meg:

Good question, as I said before! I do know of kids at Fort River (where my kids are) who have ADHD, so I guess I'd start by talking with FR staff/teachers/parents about how they have managed that environment (which yes, I think is noisier). There are certainly rooms at Fort River (and I imagine at WW, though I don't know this school as well) that are enclosed. There are also, as you point out, rooms at Crocker that are enclosed (all rooms, actually!).

I'd be glad to work with a group of parents to find answers to these, or other questions, and hopefully to find solutions that would work best for families/kids IF we need to close a school. And yes, this is the type of thinking that is active and constructive that I wish we would see more of.

Let me know (via blog or my personal email) if you want to talk more about how to do this!

Leigh S. said...

"• Schools that have music programs have significantly higher graduation rates than those without music programs (90.2 percent compared to 72.9 percent).* • On average, students in music performance scored 57 points higher on the verbal and 41 points higher on the math section of the SAT than did students with no music participation.*• " ( website)

LITERACY, MATH, MCAS SCORES, COLLEGE and FUTURE SUCCESS: Music enhances literacy for everyone, and actually is THE missing link for some kids who otherwise DO NOT LEARN TO READ ADEQUATELY. This is an underemphasized fact. In this day and age of tests and test scores, Amherst will need to hire MORE tutors to help kids learn to read and with math in order to truly make sure that all kids pass the state tests with "sufficient" results. How do I know this? I have been a tutor in Amherst public schools, as well as a student teacher / volunteer within the music program in Amherst public schools. I have also been a licensed History / Geography teacher 5-12 in Holyoke and Shelburne Falls, and an Elementary Music teacher in Ludlow. I have seen what a huge difference this music program makes in terms of reaching out to all children and providing a way to not only access and develop musical talent, but also enhance and in some cases make possible their full understanding of the English language, developing literacy skills in general and creating math connections in the brain because of the rhythm and melodies their brains need to understand.

Some negative effects of cutting this program:
1. Our test scores overall will very likely go down.
2. Kids brains will not reap the benefits of having the musical connections made for their math and literacy abilities to reach optimal potential.
3.Value of housing market will go down. People will move away because of this, and less will move here as well because of this loss. Less tax base = less money for schools. (I'm one of many who would seriously consider leaving the town if this is cut... private lessons could be affordble if paying less rent / mortgage somewhere else.
4. Sense of community - kids and families get to experience the sense of community, pride and joy together.
5. Our drop out rate WILL go up. This is pretty proven, and anyone who has worked in several school districts knows that kids "on the edge" of dropping out in MS, if they have been turned onto something like music, they will stay in school for that reason. (I believe around 80% of elem students CHOOSE to play in our amazing program with our amazing, dynamic teachers - anyone have the actual numbers?)

Read more about the benefits of / need for excellent instrumental programs in schools here: Info on how music improves brain development and helps many children with literacy and math - -

Our students are well rounded, and in our society where the increasing competitive nature of our sports culture, it's amazing to me that so many kids, boys especially, will STILL be so totally into music as well as sports in this town. Keeps a healthy balanced life perspective for them.

The social justice aspect? Well we are just not a town that walks our talk if we so quickly move to cut this program. The haves and have nots will be highlighted, the community will be more divided, and equal opportunity simply will not exist. I have seen many students start believing in themselves for the first time through their instrumental experiences. These are often the kids who would not otherwise be able to afford this experience. This is one of the few areas of our town that actually truly offers an experience for ANYONE regardless of ability to pay.

Many who have this talent would go through life with it unrecognized otherwise, and it actually provides a serious career for them, some full time, some part time. Amherst contributes to the creativity of the world, and this program enables them to do it in this way.

People think of music as "fun" or "extra," and do not realize the essential nature of the benefits of our town having this aspect to it.

Perhaps some fundraising could be done, and the program could be cut a small bit, but the unexpected "costs" of losing this are way too high to even seriously consider cutting this whole program. If you think you will be saving the "essentials," and MCAS scores, you will be gravely disappointed and surprised by the far reaching effects of cutting this program on the "core" academics and scores as well. Plus, when our homes lose value because our school district is no longer known as "amazing," we will have less money for our schools to provide the tutoring and excellent core "academics."

There's just GOT to be a way to save this program.Crunch numbers, fundraise, etc...