FOCUS ON ADVOCACY: “Best Communities for Music Education” Designees Discuss How the BCME Survey Helps Assess and Strengthen Music Education Programs

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For the past 13 years, The NAMM Foundation has recognized the “Best Communities for Music Education” (BCME) via an annual survey that celebrates music education as part of the core curriculum in US public schools. In addition to acknowledging community support for music education, the survey provides a tool for schools to assess program elements that are necessary for children to receive an exemplary education in music.

Out of 237 communities that submitted surveys, 166 school districts and 10 schools were designated. Participants answered detailed questions about funding, graduation requirements, music class participation, instruction time, facilities, support for the music program and other relevant factors in their communities’ music education programs. The BCME survey is designed and implemented in collaboration with The Institute for Educational Research and Public Service ( of Lawrence, Kansas, an affiliate of the University of Kansas. The responses were verified with district officials and advisory organizations reviewed the data.

The nationwide survey is a distinction worthy of pride, but it’s also a vigorous call to action for local music education advocates to preserve and expand support for access to music education programs for all children. Representatives from some of the 176 designated communities talked frankly about how they used the BCME distinction to strengthen efforts to protect music education in their communities, and why applying is so important to their ongoing music program assessment and planning.

BCME Survey Facilitates Communication Among School Leaders, Creates Post-Graduate Opportunities For Students

The Hortonville Area School District in Wisconsin educates nearly 3,400 students; 2012 is their 9th year as a BCME designee. Gregory Forton, Music Department Chairman, says the BCME distinction plays several vital roles in this rapidly growing, yet rural, bedroom community to Appleton, WI, including opening doors for students who have participated in the district’s music program. “The director of an award-winning show choir at the University of Wisconsin calls us, because of the quality of our program, and asks for names of our students to make sure they’re signed up to audition. Another student, who was not even a music major, received a $16,000 scholarship to St. Norbert College, because piano was her passion.”

The Hortonville music department has not been cut or reduced because, Forton says, “People say, ‘absolutely not, it’s an award-winning program, why would we touch it?’”

“I have a one-to-one relationship with our superintendent and our business manager, because of gathering the information for the survey,” Forton adds. “It really opens so many doors. We have increased funding for our music programs through our music booster organization, and the BCME award has helped immensely.” In fact, he continues, “Many students are open enrolling into the Hortonville district (and thus increasing tax dollars) because of our exemplary music program. The survey is thorough, and holds a high degree of credibility because it’s so in-depth,” he concludes.

And, Forton adds, “Our local music retail service provider, Heid Music in Appleton, hosted our music staff for dinner to congratulate us when we won the award. They see we’re getting recognition because of the BCME award, and they want to make sure we have what we need to keep our programs going strong. This is a great school/community partnership that helps keep music education strong here in Hortonville.”

BCME Encourages Collaboration, Helps Raise Student Test Scores, Inspires Younger Students to Enroll in Music Programs

The Lincoln Unified School District in Stockton, California, serves more than 8,900 students. The district applied for BCME three times before receiving the designation for the first time this year and Catherine Ettle, Music Program Lead, advises, “Try to make filling out the survey a collaborative process. I gave the survey to every music educator in our district, and learned that what you see is not necessarily what others see. Every school has a different ‘vibe,’ a different culture. Collaborating in this way also brought to light how classroom teachers who don’t teach music feel about the music program. The questions about whether or not teachers are teaching to standards revealed they are all doing their jobs well. It also came to light that we really don’t have adequate facilities; the schools in our area have really been impacted by the economy. Overall, it’s a great evaluative tool.”

When Lincoln announced the district’s win of the BCME distinction, the students took ownership right away. “We didn’t have to say, ‘this is because of you and your dedication.’ They knew, and it was fun to see their reaction,” says Ettle. “There are students at every school who attend school because they have music lessons or music class; I was that kind of kid so I know. The superintendent told them he was really proud of them, and they just lit up when they heard his praise.”

Ettle says she’s seen test scores rise alongside the growing numbers of students enrolled in music classes. “There are 130 students in my middle school band class, and that’s not even counting orchestra or choir. These kids are coming to school for music, and more music kids means higher test scores. That’s just the way it is. Next year, when we’re recruiting more students for our program, the BCME designation will help attract younger students to our program.”

New Parent Booster Group & Student Achievement Awards in Music Are Direct Outcome of BCME Designation

Long Beach City School District in Lido Beach, New York, received the BCME designation for the second time in 2012. There are 3,700 students in the district. Dr. Dale Johanson, Director of Comprehensive Arts, decided to apply soon after learning about the survey from a colleague who included the BCME designation in an email signature.

“It is a very thorough application, and provides an assessment of every aspect of a district’s music program. To collect the required data, I collaborated with both the Assistant Superintendent of Business and the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction; district data support staff and the entire music department. It required us to really self-reflect about the district’s programs, our achievements, and to also think about future goals. The first year, particularly, was a real team effort, and all of us were excited and involved.”

After winning the award last year, Johanson started a parent booster group, “Friends of the Arts”, to both support and enhance public awareness of the importance and strength of the arts in Long Beach. Parents were eager and enthusiastic to get on board. Their first charge was to create scholarships for students and, at Academic Awards Night, they presented awards for the first time, to band, marching band, orchestra and choral students. Elementary and middle school students receive certificates; high school students receive an award and cash. “This is a direct outcome of receiving the BCME designation. The application makes you assess the scope of your program, and when you win, it’s very prestigious and inspires a lot of pride. The designation provides additional support when times are tight,” she adds. “BCME helped our program avoid a funding cut the first year we received it; the second year, we took a bit of a hit – of the two people retiring this year, one was not replaced – but the cuts were not disproportionate, other departments were cut too.”

Johanson received a card of congratulations from music merchants, including one from JW Pepper when the awards were announced. “It says ‘Bravissimo!’ with hands applauding our efforts. It’s beautiful; I have it sitting on my desk.”

BCME Helps Prioritize Program Needs, and “It’s Not Just An Achievement For The Music Department: The Pride is Community Wide”

West Milford Township Public Schools in West Milford, New Jersey, serves 3,970 students and has received the BCME designation for seven years. John Boronow, District Supervisor of Music, says the BCME is “Wonderful recognition, a feather in our cap. It’s not just an achievement for the music department: the pride is community wide. Whether people play an instrument themselves or show up to attend a concert or a parade, the music program represents you as a community.”

At West Milford, pay stubs for district employees feature the BCME designation, a singular way to make support visible. “Our Interim Superintendent attended our District Arts Festival this spring, and made a special point to attend our next Music Department meeting to verbally thank us. He said, ‘it looks like you’re having fun, and you made me want to be a part of what you’re doing’.” Once a French horn player in elementary school, the administrator had taken a different route and became a teacher of physical education and athletics. “That’s why his support is so cool, coming from his own background,” Boronow adds.

Boronow uses the annual BCME survey as a tool to evaluate and prioritize expenditures. “We have tremendous community support, both physically and financially, and even during trying times, we’ve actually built our budget up. This year, we were able to get back a position we had lost earlier to retirement, and the BCME survey helped me to focus my thinking on how to justify that as a priority,” he says. “Next year, I have two priorities: purchasing an electronic textbook series for our elementary school program, and providing additional resources to our re-energized jazz ensemble. We have a new instructor for the jazz program, and I want to add a drum set and some other instruments.”

The BCME Survey is “Like Holding Up a Mirror” and “It Has Significant Impact”

The Grand Forks Public Schools educate 7,200 students in Grand Forks, North Dakota and have received the BCME designation for nine years. “Students who grew up in the program see it as part of who we are and what we do. It’s often not until after they graduate that they realize what they had here,” says Coordinator of Music, Brad Sherwood, who comes from a long line of music teachers. “My grandfather, my father, my sister all taught music in these schools, and I’m continuing the family tradition.”

Sherwood describes completing the BCME survey each year as “Like holding up a mirror. Are you doing what you want to do? If you haven’t applied before, it’s in your best interest to take a look, see where you stack up. All kinds of school districts receive the award, and they’re not all big performing arts schools.”

Grand Forks uses the award to help articulate the strengths of their music program to the school board. And, they’ve maintained music department budgets, even when there are shortfalls. “Our staffing ratios are outstanding, and we’ve had no erosion in them in 15-20 years,” says Sherwood. “I want to say thank you to The NAMM Foundation and the organizations that come together to create and support the BCME. Your dollars are well spent: this program has significant impact.”

-- Debra Bresnan is a communications consultant. She produces web content, newsletters and other written materials for businesses, non-profit organizations and individuals. Contact: