Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Rich Twp. high schools lose a band director


The three high schools in Rich Township High School District 227 will have two band directors between them this year, the Daily Southtown reports.

Rich East drumline, 2008
Rich East drumline performs at Rich Central High School in competition, October 2008. (Voxitatis)

It could have been worse. The board could have easily cut music entirely at Rich South High School in Richton Park, leaving a full band program in place only at Rich Central in Olympia Fields and Rich East in Richton Park. However, the board is giving a math teacher at South the duty of working with a percussion ensemble, leaving a remnant of a band program in place for a few students, instead of bringing in a band director for just the one school.

The contract for South’s band director, Stephanie Cheers, wasn’t renewed after she had taught for two years. Prior to being hired, she had served as a volunteer in the band program at the high school for eight years. Ms Cheers was making about $47,000 a year, according to the district’s financial information. She was among the lowest-paid teachers in the district.

Dwayne Sanders directs the band at Rich East, and Phillip Crews at Rich Central, according to the district’s website. Mr Crews earns about $76,000 a year, and Mr Sanders about $65,000.

Along with several students, Ms Cheers spoke at the board meeting Thursday, expressing disapproval for the board’s decision and noting that some of her students were in gangs prior to being in the band. Now, they’re “model students” with a 4.0 grade point average.

She credited their involvement in the band program for the change in their educational trajectory, and a number of students seemed to give the band program just as much credit in their lives as their director did.

But citing declining student engagement in the program and an inability to pay the salaries for three band directors, the district approved the director-sharing plan.

At a May 31 meeting, board members discussed the difficulty the situation posed for student scheduling: assuming there would be no band, many rearranged their schedules to take band off their list of classes for the coming year. So even if the board should reverse itself, many students will miss out on the opportunity to participate.

Rich Central drumline, 2008
Rich Central drumline performs at their home festival, October 2008 (Voxitatis)

Community members also presented personal statements to the board, as they did last week, saying that the band program would enhance the chances students have of getting college scholarships. Parents worried that removing the band program at Rich South would create an economic disparity between schools within the district, since Rich Central and East would have a band program and South wouldn’t.

I’m not sure the percussion-only math teacher will help much in that regard.

A few researchers still hold fast to the notion that music study somehow causes an improvement in students’ academic performance. At Northwestern University, in particular, research published about a year ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicated that music instruction helps enhance skills that are critical for academic success.

“While music programs are often the first to be cut when the school budget is tight, these results highlight music’s place in the high school curriculum,” Nina Kraus, senior study author and director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at the School of Communication, was quoted as saying.

How critical certain skills are for academic success, compared to others that music study doesn’t seem to affect, is not clear. And the causal link between music study and whatever “skills” Dr Kraus says it affects also remains fuzzy.

But she adds: “Although learning to play music does not teach skills that seem directly relevant to most careers, the results suggest that music may engender what educators refer to as learning to learn.” What band and academic success have in common, which is sure to be a surprise to these researchers, is a group of kids who spend more time enjoying school if they’re in the band than if they don’t participate in extracurricular or co-curricular activities with friends.

Whatever the causal link may or may not be, though, the program in Rich Township has brought engagement by a group of parents, who in May and again last week spoke proudly about their sons and daughters. One, whose son was also involved in a computer programming boot camp, credited his music studies with building his sense of self-sufficiency.

For me, the argument that music study improves academic success has always been pointless. It puts music and the arts in second place, compared to subjects like algebra, and hints at the idea that music itself has no inherent value. Those positions aren’t tenable.

But time and again, we see in actual schools, where actual kids are trying to improve their lives, that music programs are cut, removing what for many, many students is the only reason to rise and shine every morning to get to school early for band practice—even during summer vacation.

That is an important life skill: to know that your friends in band are counting on you to show up, for without the second trumpet part, the first trumpet part is kind of dull. It’s the team and the camaraderie, then, that make band worth keeping in schools like Rich South and Rich East, even with a temporary decline in student engagement.

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Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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