In the school year 2020/21 I will be beginning my 11th year as a Fulton City School District student.

As I have grown in this community, I have been blessed with many opportunities, including the opportunity to be taught something as sacred and integral to humanity as music. Our district’s music program has produced hundreds of extremely talented musicians, been an important factor for our students’ mental health and generated some of the most well-rounded and successful pupils in the area.

However, as I listened to the budget plan proposed on May 12, 2020, and reiterated on May 19, I felt I was listening to these opportunities slip away. In 11 years, I have watched my options for musical education vanish. I have watched teachers be shuffled around schools, being forced to manage multiple ensembles spread across multiple buildings. I have seen broken instruments thrown away instead of fixed for lack of money to fix them, ensembles stuffed into smaller and smaller rooms to make way for other projects. I have been denied the chance to enroll in music classes as a result of my choice to participate in advanced courses, and have known others who cannot participate in these courses as a result of their special needs in other academic areas.

There are 12 music staff throughout this district. There are 25 ensembles. Many of these staff members also teach general music, music theory, instruct lessons, and/or conduct ensembles that meet outside of the school day and are typically instructing at multiple buildings.

It was proposed that an existing staff member would teach all of the classes instructed by the current position, with the instruction being lost at said staff member’s original building being filled by another staff member from an elementary building, in addition to this staff member maintaining their time at their current building as well. This is inefficient, and will undoubtedly decrease both the quality and accessibility of musical education for students in our schools, particularly younger students. This reduction is not a “modification,” it is detrimental.

In the Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders Needs Assessments by DSRIP Region, published by the New York State Office of Mental Health in 2016, Oswego County was registered as having 1,449 children per every 100,000 clinically treated for a mental disorder, an average 374 people enrolled in substance abuse treatment, daily. Here, suicide is the eighth most common cause of death.

In 2016, music therapist Molly Warren published an article on the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s website titled The Impact of Music Therapy on Mental Health. She explains the four major interventions that music therapy provides; Lyric Analysis, Improvisation Music Playing, Active Music Listening, and Songwriting. Warren describes how these activities can regulate mood, provide outlets for expression, encourage patients to work through complex emotions, and provide them the tools necessary to cope with difficult situations. All four of these techniques are provided by our district’s current music program. In addition to the mental health impact music has, these programs also provide students with an academic advantage. In the graduating class of 2020 alone, we have several musical students graduating. All of these students are highly driven and high achieving, as are a majority of their peers pursuing a career in music.

Music is an art form that constantly changes and challenges, requiring a never-ending amount of patience, self-discipline, respect, responsibility, communication, and a host of other skills important to being a well adapted member of society.

Why, then, is a program so obviously beneficial being stripped from our district? Is it not our district’s mission to, “empower students to develop the knowledge and skills to become respectful, responsible, productive citizens who are committed to lifelong learning?”

In Volume 37 of Instructional Science; An International Journal of the Learning Sciences, a study involving elementary aged students titled Does Musical Training Improve School Performance? was published. It concluded that students involved in music had significantly higher test scores than those who did not, and, more importantly, that the element of sustained training was most important. Neuroscientists worldwide have concluded that children are able to learn at a faster pace due to the prefrontal cortex being less developed, and it is shown that students who start younger are more apt to continue with their musical education. A study by The Brain and Creativity Institute at USC showed young children that are exposed to music often have, “accelerat[ed] brain development, particularly in the areas of the brain responsible for processing sound, language development, speech perception, and reading skills…” Is it wise then, to make a decision that we are completely aware will stretch elementary music staff even further, and lessen music education for our young students?

The relationship between music and academic achievement is clear. Harris Principal’s reported that schools with music programs had 17.3 percent higher graduation rates and an 8.4 percent higher attendance rate. In its 2019 assessment, students with the intent to major in liberal arts scored an average of 81 points higher than the average total test score. This trend has existed for years. According to SUNY data, in 2019, Oswego County residents made up a total of 0.9 percent of enrollments, despite Oswego county making up only 0.6 percent of New York State’s total population. Of this 0.9 percent, 5.1 percent of those enrolled were performing or visual arts students. Comparatively, students studying health and related fields constituted 5.3 percent. FCSD’s music program is one of the most impactful in the county. How would it affect student development if this position were reduced? How is it possible that Fulton City School District can envision itself as being a, “learning organization that is the centerpiece of the community, where all are welcomed and held to standards of excellence that foster hope and resilience for the future,” yet deny students the access to resources that are proven to keep kids in school, increase graduation rate, boost mental health, increase cognitive development, and encourage academic success?

On May 12, our district’s enrollment rate was noted as dropping, with “50 less students a year” registering. Is it a coincidence that the quality and respect for our music program has followed a similar downward trend? The understanding that our board does not have the intent to prevent student success is clear. However, to suggest that the failure to fill this position to its completion will have no effect on the music program proves how removed the board of education is from the needs of our district.

Music classes render a completely different experience than any other program, and their requirements must be treated accordingly. This decision is a result of the board’s failure to listen to the educators it employs and to understand the dynamic necessary for music education. This situation must be handled with the appropriate consideration. To go through with this plan would mean to knowingly deny students the mental, academic, and health benefits these classes provide.

The Fulton City School District Board of Education must acknowledge that to further cut back our music program, it would make the board responsible for a possible decrease in mental wellness, as well as responsible for possible lower test scores, and a possible rise in absences. It will be responsible for a probable lower graduation rate, and graduating students who are less adapted for college and career experiences. While it is understandable that the board is facing many fiscal challenges, to not fill this position would force the entire community to accept that music is unimportant to the district. It will be fulfilling a decades long national trend of cutbacks, underfunding, and understaffing, when there is an opportunity to change it.

The Fulton City School District Board of Education will make whatever decisions it deems necessary during this budget year. However, it must understand that with these decisions comes responsibility, and consequences.

Editor’s note: Contacted prior to the publication of the above piece, Fulton School Superintendent Brian Pulvino said the district is not dismissing criticism.

“I’m blessed that we’re were poised to continue to strengthen the district’s position and our programming,” Pulvino told The Palladium-Times. “Every position in this district, every hour that we have, we’re looking at how to use positions differently given our momentum. Nothing is changing in music programming — there will be a full-time person.”

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