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Music cutbacks at some IPS schools anger parents

Erin Szalkie’s sixth-grade son James was upset when she dropped him off at school this morning, having just learned that the orchestra program he loves at Indianapolis Public Schools’ Center for Inquiry at School 84 would be cut next year.

Whether the fledgling violinist would continue to learn to play his instrument was suddenly in doubt.

School 84 is one of a handful of IPS elementary schools that would stop offering instrumental music lessons next year as part of a district-wide overhaul of music, art and gym programs aimed at making sure all schools get a full-time teacher in each of those subjects.

But to add full-time teachers at some schools that have only part-time teachers in those subjects, other schools might lose extras, like lessons for kids who play band and orchestra instruments.

Szalkie and others say they learned of the plan from teachers or through Facebook friends, not directly from the district, and they’re angry.

“These programs don’t belong to the school board, they belong to the kids,” Szalkie said. “To have no communication, no explanation and no opportunity to say ‘maybe there’s something else we can do’ … is disappointing.”

If the changes are put in place, each elementary school would have one full-time music teacher. In the past, some schools had a part-time music teacher while others had both a general music teacher and a part-time instrumental music teacher.

Most of IPS’s 48 elementary schools probably won’t notice a change. For many, it might only will mean a music teacher spending a few more hours at school. But for 12 schools, including the Centers for Inquiry, it means fewer teachers.

“The goal is to create a more equitable system where each school has at least one dedicated, full-time music educator,” IPS spokeswoman Kristin Cutler said. “The current system involves many shared educators between several schools.”

The move was also designed to give principals more choice in how to assign staff at their buildings. IPS school board members have made repeated calls for principals to make more choices about how they run their schools.

Schools with high enrollment will have an additional “special area” teacher. Principals can choose what they want that teacher to teach. The also can decide whether the school’s one music teacher will specialize in general music or instrumental music.

Not every music teacher is licensed in both general music and instrumental music. It’s an “incredibly rare skill set” to have both, Szalkie said. Her school principal was left with little choice but to cut the orchestra program. Others probably will face the same difficult choice.

“You’re going to have a general program for every kid,” Szalkie said. “If you’re saying you have the choice, their hands are tied. They have to make a decision that meets every grade level, every kid. It’s not really a choice.”

School board member Gayle Cosby said she was unhappy with the decision. School autonomy should result in more program choices for schools and kids, not fewer, she said.

“We all know that parents base school decisions off of these kinds of offerings,” Cosby said. “Here we are again, making decisions about autonomy without a full understanding of autonomy as a board. I’m concerned that we are once again putting the cart before the horse.”

Szalkie’s son said he wants to take action to protest the decision. Now his mom just has to figure out if she can find a way for him to have lessons outside of school next year.

“He’s planning to start his letter writing camping tonight,” Szalkie said. “I said, ‘You’re old enough. If you don’t agree with what they’re doing, stand up and say something.'”