At a time when most Wake County middle and high schools no longer have orchestras, music advocates took their case straight to the school board this week.
Orchestra supporters pleaded with the Wake County school board – both in words and music – to add more strings programs to North Carolina’s largest school district. Without strong middle-school programs teaching stringed instruments such as violin, viola and cello, the boosters warned, that the remaining high-school programs will become endangered.
“These orchestras are being starved of musicians with basic foundational skills they would have picked up in a middle school orchestra,” said Beth Shugg, the mother of an Apex High orchestra member and a member of the Apex Strings Boosters.
School administrators and board members insist that Wake has a strong music program. But say that in a time of tight budgets it’s up to principals to decide whether to offer strings instruction in addition to the usual brass-and-woodwinds band classes.
“This board did not cut budgets for the arts programs,” school board member Jim Martin said. “But some principals chose not to allocate those funds in a way that they had allocated them previously. The whole issue of what can be done is a budgetary issue.”
According to the school district, seven of Wake’s 104 elementary schools, 15 of the 33 middle schools and 13 of the 27 high schools have strings programs or orchestras. In contrast, most, if not all, of Wake’s secondary schools have bands.
It’s figures like these that caused strings supporters to show up at Tuesday’s school board meeting.
Shugg shared studies showing that music students have higher graduation rates, grades and test scores and are less likely to have disciplinary issues. She questioned how some middle-school strings students are assigned to high schools without orchestras, while the orchestras at Apex and Broughton high schools are not served by any middle schools with strings programs.
She pointed to other North Carolina districts, such as Chapel Hill-Carrboro, that have strings programs in all their high schools and middle schools.
“As the hub of culture and the arts in North Carolina and the home of the North Carolina Symphony, we believe Wake County should be included on this list,” Shugg said.
The orchestra supporters followed up their words with a brief performance of the Kansas rock tune “Carry On Wayward Son,” by an Apex High string quartet.
The performance got applause. What it didn’t get was a promise to respond to their requests.
In a district statement, school administrators said decisions about strings programs are made at each school. Principals weigh factors such as student interest, if strings classes fit into the school’s culture, and if there is money available to staff the program, according to Wake.
“I don’t know if it’s the students who don’t have a lot of interest,” said Cassie Rod, 16, a junior and Apex High orchestra member who played at the school board meeting. “I think it’s the administrators who don’t have the interest. It’s not fair to the kids.”
Margaret Partridge, executive director of the Philharmonic Association in the Triangle, said she’s seen no drop in interest in Wake. She said the association has expanded the number of youth programs, such as the Triangle Youth Strings Orchestra, because parents have complained they can’t get strings in schools.
“It seems almost purposeful for them to make it die in high schools by not having middle-school orchestras,” Partridge said.
But some principals say it’s not easy to offer strings.
Stacey Weddle, the principal of Wake Forest Middle School, said she doesn’t have a sixth-grade strings class this year because there wasn’t enough demand. Based on her funding, she said, she can’t offer an elective that has 10 or fewer students.
“You’ve got to choose the resources based on the level of student interest,” Weddle said.
Weddle hopes to generate more interest to keep strings after the current students graduate in two years.
A vicious cycle
At Apex High School, Principal Matt Wight said he’s only able to keep Todd Miller as the full-time strings director because Miller’s guitar classes are packed. Without guitar, Wight said he’d only be able to employ Miller in a half-time position to teach orchestra.
Wight, who is leaving in January to become principal of the new Apex-Friendship High School, said he’d like eventually to offer orchestra at his new school. But he isn’t sure if there will be enough interest, because the school isn’t slated to get students from any middle schools with orchestras.
Miller said it’s part of a vicious cycle in which the elimination of middle school programs has also hurt high school orchestras. He said the elimination of the strings program five years ago at Apex Middle School means he’s getting more students who haven’t had prior experience.
“I’ve got kids at so many different ability levels it’s difficult to meet their needs,” Miller said.
Miller is increasingly reliant on students who took private lessons before enrolling in high school. Michael Burns, 16, a junior and violinist for Apex High’s orchestra, had strings in school in New Jersey, but had to rely on private lessons when he relocated to Wake for middle school.
“I would have liked to play in middle school, but I didn’t get the chance,” said Burns, who was among the quartet who played for the school board.
Partridge of the Philharmonic Association said Wake runs the risk of limiting orchestras to students who can afford private lessons.
“The place to start is in elementary and middle schools,” Partridge said. “That’s the place you can start for people who can’t afford private lessons.”
Martin, the school board member, said it’s a case of increasing school funding so that schools will have more flexibility to offer additional things such as orchestra.
“If we have the resources, these are the things that can be done,” Martin said.