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Budget cuts threaten arts programs, student development in Phila. schools

100-degree weather, a 100-piece orchestra and just one director outside of the offices of school district of Philadelphia to advocate for one thing—the love of arts education in the school system. “Over the years, I’ve had students tell me that music is what keeps them coming to school,” music teacher Kimberly Neu said.

But it was 2011 and the school district was cutting the budget and music education was a potential cut. Neu felt she needed to do something about keeping music education funded.

'Don't Cut Music' sign made by a Philadelphia arts student. (Jamie Comfort/Submitted Photo)

‘Don’t Cut Music’ sign made by a Philadelphia arts student. (Jamie Comfort/Submitted Photo)

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the arts are a fundamentally important part of culture, and an education without them is impoverished. Neu says that she can attest to this. Growing up she was painfully shy until she began playing the clarinet in 5th grade at Loesche Elementary School. “The Philly schools gave me the opportunity to shine in music and excel in what I am good at and meant to do,” Neu said.

Over the years, the Philadelphia school district offers a variety of opportunity for students to participate in music programs. Programs consist of various choirs, bands, and orchestras including the popular “All City.”  “I took lessons in school and also took lessons outside of school with older kids in the district,” Neu said.

Neu attributes her success in and out of the classroom to the opportunities she had to play music.

“All of the best musicians from all over the city would perform the highest level of music,” Neu said. Though there is an audition process for the All-City groups, students learn from their music teachers and are prepared. Music had an impact on the way Neu socialized and communicated. But she did not understand at the time that it was music that was responsible.

Studies have shown that music is an effective way to enhance cognitive abilities. Though the studies have proven to help with the development and growth of a child the school district still decides on cuts to the system. Not only with music programs, but teachers have lost jobs and there is an overcrowding of schools. This overcrowding can cause a student to not receive the attention they need in the classroom and may affect the way the child learns.

In a PBS documentary “Project gives young brains the benefits of musical training,” Dr. Nina Krause explains that early studies have shown a connection between music and education. Though there have been many studies conducted none have shown a direct correlation. “Music is an important investment in teaching a child skills,” Krause said. Such an important investment that it can teach a child how to multitask and communicate.

Studies such as this one suggest that a student can benefit from music programs all across the board. No matter if you are rich, poor, black or white, music is a universal language that everyone can understand. Sophomore instrumental performance student Jack Saint Clair knows what it feels like to be able to communicate.

“Music teaches you to listen and communicate with others on the bandstand,” Saint Clair said, “which in turn helps you form meaningful relationship in life.” Having been led by music director Neu for a while, Jack was not foreign to the world of music. He began in the 4th grade and to this date has been playing for almost nine years.  Saint Clair knows much about the discipline of music, as he is a musician of three instruments: saxophone, flute and clarinet.

“Music has provided an emotional outlet, humbled me and taught me to be patient and perseverant,” Saint Clair said.  Much like Saint Clair, students highlighted in the PBS documentary benefited from music as well—academically. A project called the Harmony Project founded by Margaret Martin is an opportunity much like what is offered in the Philadelphia area schools. It originally began in California but has since branched over to Ventura, Tulsa, New Orleans and Miami. The project gave students an opportunity to play music and be a part of a band at no cost. Many students that enter the program struggled academically. The program has had 93 percent of its students graduate and go on to college.

Musical training enhances the neurological development. This is why the Harmony Project has such a high success rate.

Art is important to an education because it gives students an opportunity to spread their wings. “Art allows students to be creative, express themselves, work as a team and find their voice,” Neu said. Neu never expected to turn from a shy student to a teacher who would have the chance to give other students the same privilege and opportunities as she did. “I was a student who taught lessons,” Neu said. “I never saw myself as a school teacher.”

She said the very thought of teaching 33 students terrified her. However, her opportunity came from a high school teacher remembering her drive and potential. “Music in the School District of Philadelphia was my family,” Neu said. “Teachers were like second parents to me.”

Though Neu’s role has changed in the School District from a student to a teacher, opportunities continued to shower down on her. “When the state took over the school district I got scared,” Neu said. She was an itinerant music teacher at the time and taught music lessons at seven different schools.

As fortune would have it, a position opened at Masterman School. “I have never looked back,” Neu said. “Once again the School District of Philadelphia has helped me to find my voice.”

Music not only in the school district of Philadelphia but around the world gives students a sense of hope and belonging in an ever-changing society. “Music is used to heal, sooth, entertain and so much more,” Neu said. “So in many ways it is more important than calculus and chemistry even!”

Neu believes this to be true from experiencing hands on the neurological effects of music. “A few years back, I had a student with Asperger syndrome,” Neu said. “He had trouble communicating with the other students.” Neu recalls that music is what really got this student to open up. He learned how to play a number of woodwind instruments. “He composed a piece for the orchestra which we performed.”

The school district continues to face financial difficulties. Though the music program has been safe for a time, cuts will soon be made once again in the district, once again threatening the music and arts programs. “Nobody wants to cut a math or English teacher, god forbid,” Neu said. Many lesson teachers were cut last year due to the lack of budget for the school system. The increasingly declining funding makes it hard for schools to continue their programs.

“Due to budget cuts, teachers like me are forced to teach general music classes all day,” Neu said. “We serve more as prep teachers than the instrumental teachers we were hired to be.”

Reports from the National Endowment for the Arts also suggest that the lack of interest in music programs is responsible for the decline in schools. This could mean jobs in jeopardy.  The solution is simple to invested teachers like Neu. “No more charter schools,” Neu said. “We need more money to the Philly Schools where it belongs.”

Along with money there needs to be more interest and demand for music programs. Personal testimonies need to be told of how music programs have impacted their life. “We need a government that feels that public education is important and their responsibility,” Neu said.

Until then Neu, and other teachers will do everything they can to advocate music programs and its benefit to a student’s education. “ I am putting in time before and after school to teach lessons,” Neu said. “I love my kids and will keep on fighting for these kids to have what I had.”

With limited resources and little power one voice can only hope to be loud enough for someone somewhere to really listen. “Our school and my administrator value music,” Neu said, “but with bare bones budgets, they have to do what they have to do.”

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