In times of economic hardship, it is a given that school arts programs are the first to get the shaft. Naturally, the three R's are paramount, and, typically, sporting events are shown greater respect due to the social customs that accompany their practice; however, it is tragic that the arts, which offer the greatest contributions to humanity and the enrichment of culture, can be so dishonored that when a small battle is won to bring back what should already exist, the key players are nothing less than saints.
Anaheim City School District (ACSD) is the sixth largest elementary school district in California. Its 24 schools provide education for over 19,300 students; 74% of those students speak Spanish in their homes, and 85% of them qualify for free or reduced rate lunches. According to Dorothy Rose, the executive director of Orange County Symphony (OCS), there had not been an instrumental music program in the district for somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 years. Evidently, this was not to her satisfaction.
Rose became the executive director of OCS in 2004. "From day one, my vision was to bring music back to the elementary students of the city of Anaheim," she says. As noble a vision as this was, she found no support. "I took the idea to many different people, and nobody was interested." Nine years later, following Dr. Linda Wagner's unanimous appointment to the position of superintendent for ACSD, the perseverant Rose and OCS president, Michael Anderson, paid her a visit.
The position of district superintendent can be very political at times. One would be hard pressed to find evidence of classroom experience in the biography of any Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent of the 21st century (allegations of crimes ranging from sexual misconduct to misappropriation of tens of millions of dollars, however, are not so elusive). Dr. Wagner's 27 years of educational experience are testament to her commitment to the field. Rose recounts that during their initial meeting, Dr. Wagner said that she'd "always felt that music was a huge part of what is important to elementary school education."
Upon hearing this, Rose pitched: "We have a 250 roster of really professional, talented, willing musicians...[and] nearly every one of our musicians teaches their own private students." She continued, "There are at least a major number of these musicians who would be willing to come and teach after-school instruction in instruments because I [believe they agree that] kids...participating in teamwork in an orchestral setting is tremendously valuable."
According to Rose, Dr. Wagner's response was, "Yeah, let's do it!" That initial meeting took place in April, 2013. By September, 14 of the 24 ACSD schools had pilot programs, and 56 classes a week were being taught in the four sections of the orchestra (strings, brass, percussion, and woodwinds) to 1,264 students. These programs would not have been possible without the perseverance of Rose and Wagner.
Dr. Wagner recounts how she first introduced the initiative to her educational community, "Each school spread the word through parent newsletters, calling systems, fliers and word of mouth. At the district level, we filmed a video and sent it out via e-mail to all teachers to be shown at [the initial] schools participating in the program. The video showed various instruments and encouraged students to participate. Finally, we held parent information nights, along with our colleagues at OCS, to speak to parents about the program and to demonstrate instruments."
Naturally, creating an orchestral program costs money. "We started out without a single, solitary instrument," Rose remembers. But this was no deterrent to her vision. "I speak at city council meetings twice a month...about music and what [OCS is] doing. So, I talked about [the plan] at city council, and the next thing I knew, the newspapers ran a story here and there, I was featured on NPR, and then Dr. Wagner spent a little bit of money [with the district's] PR firm, which gave her advice and made possible some press conferences."
Dr. Wagner elaborates, "We spoke at the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) education division conference about our need for instruments. We have visited local service clubs such as Rotary and Kiwanis to solicit donations, [and] Mayor [Tom] Tait and the City of Anaheim are helping to spread the word."
The results were gradual but effective enough to get things started. According to Rose, instruments trickled in one by one; money has also gradually been contributed--principally through private citizens. Dr. Wagner revealed that the funds for the very modest teacher stipends ($25 a class) are primarily raised through PTA and other donations. To help things along, this week (March 23 - 29) NAMM will present the school board with a $10,000 check, which will be earmarked for the orchestra program.
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Thanks to the efforts of Dorothy Rose and Dr. Linda Wagner, the orchestral music program has received $75,000 in donations, 50 instruments (in varying conditions), and is on track to expand to all 24 schools in the district by this fall. The program still needs assistance in the form of cash donations as well as instruments; specifically, there is a shortage of: cellos, basses, trombones, tubas, saxophones, and percussion instruments.
On May 17, the Children's Art Festival, in downtown Anaheim, will feature a performance by the students who are most performance-ready. Beyond that, each of the 14 schools which currently participate in the orchestral program will feature a recital so that the parents, and the community, can see the product of this visionary endeavor. For Rose, the opportunity to watch students and their families take part in an orchestral program they can be proud of is the greatest reward. "One of the things that makes our program unique, on the planet, frankly, is that...as part of their curriculum, we invite not only the student but every member of their family (all siblings, aunts, uncles) to attend [as many OCS concerts as they like for free]; they get to see their teachers, on-stage, as part of the symphony ensembles; this makes it pretty cool."