A chorus of support for music in class
by Ryan McDonald
Meagan Sardana gets more than her share of surprised residents. The president of Hermosa Beach Youth Music (HBYM) continues to find parents who don’t know that music is available to children in Hermosa Beach City School District.
“At least half of the parents don’t know we have after-school music available,” Sardana said.
Such information matters, because music has been absent from the regular curriculum for more than five years. HBYM, a nonprofit led by district parents, has been trying to fill the gap, offering after-school band and choral programs for children between third and eighth grade.
The program has racked up its share of accomplishments. But now, as the district emerges from the financial shadow of the recession, the nonprofit is leading a different kind of march: to bring music back to city classrooms.
HBYM formed in 2012. Superintendent Patricia Escalante got together with parents and suggested creating a tax-exempt organization to provide a musical outlet for district youth, after a change to state education code forced the demise of a previous after-school music program.
“It was a great moment to think outside the box,” Escalante said. “To look at the program and think, how can we keep music as an available option?”
The district granted the nonprofit a waiver to use school facilities free of charge. The group now use the multi-purpose room at Hermosa Valley School to offer choral practice once a week, and band practice twice a week.
Band director Ken Harrison said that the nonprofit gives kids a headstart on the music skills they will need for future musical endeavors.
“The whole point, beyond teaching them to appreciate music, is to get them ready for high school band programs,” Harrison said.
The approach has been successful. The program won awards in its first year, and has improved each year since. This year, the band and chorus programs received “gold” ratings at the Forum Music Festival, one of the nation’s top youth music competitions.
“We have some very pleased parents,” Sardana said. “Our band members come back year after year.”
The band has begun to imprint itself on civic life by making regular appearances at a variety of local events, including the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, Opening Day of Little League, and the holiday Tree Lighting ceremony.
The increased visibility should help as the nonprofit sets its sights on returning music to the school day.
“We want it to be for everybody,” said Regina Hoffman, a former HBYM president now serving as a board member of the nonprofit. “Right now, we’re only getting to a small portion of students.”
Hoffman has recently been reaching out to school board members, hoping to build support.
“The board members seem receptive,” Hoffman said. “They are all very open to having music in schools, and we hope to see it happen.”
One strategy the organization has pursued is to tout the spillover benefits that music education can bring. Secretary Candy Ayllón said that she has seen how the experience has made a positive change in the children who play.
“Socially, when you are playing in a band, you are really working as a team,” Ayllón said. “It teaches you how to work in a group.”
Such a strategy has found an open ear in newly elected school board member Monique Ehsan. Ehsan won a seat on the board last November in part by campaigning on the importance of arts education, and said she understands the crucial role it can play in shaping young minds.
“I personally believe that music is math,” Ehsan said. “Music is so essential for cognitive development.”
Since 1995, the California Education Code has required that all students receive instruction in the visual and performing arts. Last month, local state Sen. Ben Allen and Assemblyman Ian Calderon, members of the Joint Committee on the Arts, held an oversight hearing on the implementation of the mandate.
“How school districts deliver quality arts education should be a matter of local control,” Joe Landon, executive director of California Alliance for Arts Education, said at the conference. “Whether they offer arts education is not negotiable.”
Superintendent Escalante said that even though funding cuts impacted the music program, HBCSD remained in compliance with the code.
“We haven’t necessarily had a stand-alone program, but we have had the arts embedded in our curriculum,” Escalante said. “It certainly hasn’t been absent.”
School districts in both Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach currently have music in the curriculum. To bring it back to Hermosa will require some financial maneuvering.
Under California’s new Local Control Funding Formula, HBCSD is among the lowest-funded districts in the state. Ehsan said that, in addition to commitments from the Hermosa Beach Education Foundation, the district will have to look for funding from a “variety of sources.”
She pointed to the variety of tech companies surrounding the town, and said that studies linking music to math and science achievement could be a powerful inducement.
“We’re well positioned, in a town surrounded by aerospace,” Ehsan said. “But we have to go looking for it.”
In the short term, the space-starved district faces challenges other than money if it wants to return music to the classroom.
“Finance is no longer the big obstacle,” Escalante said. “It’s really a space issue. We don’t have the space to store instruments and equipment right now.”
For now, voices and trumpets will keep floating out of the Hermosa Valley multi-purpose room. The nonprofit is aiming for a return to the classroom by the 2017-18 school year, but is looking at all possible options.
“Do I think we can create an orchestra by next year? No,” Hoffman said. “But we can potentially get music in next year for the younger ones. You don’t need a lot of space for a chorus.”