For the past 11 years, I have been the music supervisor for Loudoun County Public Schools in Northern Virginia. I also serve as the Stonewall District representative to the Frederick County, Virginia school board, a position I have held for four years.
This dual perspective – as school district employee in one county and as elected official in a neighboring county – has shown me that advocacy for quality music education programs is a never-ending journey. To be effective, advocacy must be ongoing and persistent.
Keep the value of music education programs front and center
Our school population here in Loudoun has nearly doubled in the past decade, growing from 31,800 in 2000 to over 63,000 students for the 2010-2011 school year! We have built 30 new school buildings to accommodate this growth.
We have a school board and superintendent who support the arts. Yet, when the current economic crisis hit our area, people asked, “where can we cut?” or “what can we do without?” We discussed the impact of fewer elementary music teachers and, following a careful financial analysis, were able to find other ways to save money in these difficult times.
How were we able to keep the value of music education in the forefront and maintain support for programs in our schools? Fortunately, music and arts education programs have a strong presence in our community. Over the past decade, we have developed:
· Strong music booster organizations with active parental involvement
· Visible support from local music retailers
· A quiet and determined community arts council
· And, most importantly, successful students who exemplify our community’s fine music education programs!
Another tool we now use is our designation by The NAMM Foundation as a “2010 Best Community for Music Education in America”. When we applied for the Best Community Award, we were forced to examine our programs through the eyes of someone else:
• How much money do we spend on our programs?
• Who are the students we serve?
• How many students “elect” to take music in our schools?
• What types of programs do we offer?
• Is our music staff highly qualified?
• How much music instruction time is offered?
• What are our graduation requirements related to music instruction?
These and other questions helped the leadership of the school division to evaluate – and appreciate – the importance of music education in Loudoun County schools.
Keeping an eye to the future to ensure support for music education
In Frederick County, we have similarly strong programs. The scale is smaller, but the community support and awareness is good. As a school board member, I know that I would do whatever it takes to provide a solid education for all students – and that includes music!
So, when things are going well, why is it important to advocate for the arts? Many people take music education for granted because they believe in its value and see that others do too. And yet, this is a very complacent and unwise way to operate a school music education program. Every decision made that supports other programs has the potential to draw support and resources away from music – regardless of the size or financial stability of your community or school.
5 ways to keep music education strong for students in your community
1. Be proactive. We discuss and target parent and community support and outreach in all Loudoun music staff meetings. Our teachers’ hard work and personal relationships with parents and community leaders are the best and first line of advocacy.
2. Publicize your program and the benefits of music education. Toot your horn when students receive awards or win competitions or scholarships. Have a core group of students ready to perform for grand openings, holiday programs at nursing homes, or other community events. Let people know how many students benefit from your school district music programs. Share the latest research and statistics about how music education improves graduation rates, etc.
3. Build community relationships. Personally invite community leaders to attend school concerts. Request local media coverage for school music events. Attend school board and town council meetings. Join the PTA. Invite a music teacher or students to speak or perform at the next meeting of your local civic organization.
4. Know the numbers behind music education. You can’t ‘make the case’ for your program if you don’t have a grasp of how much it costs, the numbers students participating, how many full-time educators are needed, and so on. Create an impact statement from the data available from your district office.
5. Recognize and thank supporters. The next election is always right around the corner: let your community leaders and elected officials know that music education is a priority for you as a voter. Tell funders, parents, hard-working teachers, alumni, music retailers, and anyone else who helps preserve music education in your community that you appreciate their support.
-- Melvin (Jim) Harmon taught music in elementary, intermediate and high school in Virginia for many years and now serves as music supervisor in Loudoun County. He is studying to obtain his doctorate in musical arts from Shenandoah University.