The future of Glacier Valley Elementary School’s innovative violin program — Juneau, Alaska Music Matters — is uncertain as the Juneau School District makes budget cuts in anticipation of a $5 million deficit.
The program was started in the music-intensive school two years ago by 2011 Alaska Teacher of the Year Lorrie Heagy, as an intervention for at-risk students. Every single kindergartener starts learning to play the violin.
The program is at risk because the proposed budget cuts remove 0.5 full time equivalent positions from each elementary school. At Glacier Valley, that means Heagy will go back to being a half-time librarian, half-time music teacher instead of a full-time music teacher. Heagy said that for JAMM to continue, the district needs to fund 4.5 hours a week for that instruction.
She spoke before the district budget committee Tuesday night, along with a host of parents and colleagues. Heagy said the school board has urged schools to work with the community to invest in programs and education.
“The community has already donated close to $73,000 with the idea that this is something the school district was invested in,” she said, adding with matching funds and other contributions, the number would be more than $80,000.
The community support for JAMM has expanded far beyond the reach of Juneau, not only getting community and parent financial support for the program, but also state and federal grants, and even a large contribution of instruments from China.
Heagy said they also just got a grant that paid for 12 cellos for second-graders to start with next year. The grants and donations have purchased 75 violins.
All the district needs to pay for to keep the program going is the 4.5 hours a week for a specialist.
The program also is getting less expensive over time. The program has contracted local violin teacher Xia GuoHua to help the train the teachers. The first year Xia worked with Heagy in implementing the kindergarten portion, as Heagy and the classroom teachers worked together in giving the instruction. She does that portion with the kindergarten teachers alone now. This year, he’s working with Heagy and the first-graders as they work out the second year plan and next year she would also do that alone if her full music position were retained.
The first year of violin instruction cost $250 per student for 90 minutes of violin during the week. This year, it only costs $65 per student in kindergarten, and will cost that amount next year for the first graders as well. Heagy said they have been training another teacher who is ready to implement the program for the district’s other Title I school, Riverbend Elementary. She believes implementation of that program will not take place in the near future because the school is expecting to start AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination).
Heagy participated in the first round of the Abreau Fellowship, which explored innovative music techniques in various locations around the world, but most notably Venezuela. Venezuela has created a program called El Sistema, which Heagy modeled JAMM after. That model highly integrates the community in with learning violin.
Heagy’s format starts kindergarteners out with a family night, creating a paper violin. Students add different pieces they made that night to the violin as they learn more about it — learning finger movements, how to hold it, how to stand properly. Eventually, the young musicians get real violins to play with. All of that instruction occurs during the school day. This year, first graders (last year’s inaugural kindergarten violinists) continued the program for a total of about 120 students playing the violin. The plan is to have them continue playing as second graders as an after-school option — basically adding a piece to the program each year.
Heagy, her colleagues and parents stand firmly behind the program and what it’s doing for students at the school.
Not only that, the program is growing nationally with now 20 people trained to implement El Sistema nationwide. Glacier Valley’s program is also gaining attention as a new book highlights Heagy’s use of music education with JAMM. The book is called “Changing Lives” by Tricia Tunstall and talks about El Sistema. For more information on the book, visit bit.ly/xDMCXB.
“I was down at the El Sistema symposium, everyone said to me ‘oh, you’re the program from Alaska,’” Heagy said. “We inspired a program in Denver to start a similar model. There are other schools in the country who have been looking at our model. … The El Sistema program is about access and equity for all kids. Not just families who can make it happen after school. Because it is an intervention with all of these cognitive benefits, we wanted to make sure all students could learn violin.”
Glacier Valley Principal Ted Wilson confirmed a loss of the half-time specialist would change Heagy’s designation as a full-time music teacher. Other specialists at the school are the counselor, physical education teacher and librarian.
Wilson said he needs to keep the counselor position full time because they’re booked all the time and the physical education specialist because of issues with childhood obesity. The current librarian would be half library and half literacy intervention, some work she already is doing.
Wilson said it’s a tough choice because of all the research that shows what music instruction does for a student in academic achievement.
“We don’t take any of them lightly,” he said.
Parents at Tuesday’s meeting said their children have become more confident, learned dedication and delayed gratification. They have learned to correlate that learning mastery of an instrument can translate to mastery of spelling words or math equations — with enough practice they can master those subjects.
Glacier Valley teachers involved with the program spoke as a group, saying they have seen increased focus, stamina, pride, higher rate of skill acquisition, and a broader understanding of arts and music in the students.
A woman by the name of Casey also spoke, who has a kindergartener and first-grader at Glacier Valley. She gave very emotional testimony on what the program has done not only for her sons academically, but also as a family.
“My boys have worked very hard with this program and I haven’t got to see them so excited about something, something at school,” she said. “That doesn’t happen very often. They have worked very hard the last two years. They’ve worked so hard to brag to grandma and grandpa about what they’ve done with the violin.”
She said her sons interact with each other like typical brothers — except when it comes to violin. The oldest will show his 5-year-old brother how to stand, evaluate whether he’s holding the bow right, and other details.
“He will follow his direction,” she said of the younger son. “My son doesn’t follow directions. It would be a detriment to the community because it’s really teaching these kids so much more than music.”
Board members in the past have been supportive of the program. Member Mark Choate recently watched the students perform and likes what he sees.
"Watching the first-graders (recently) was an overwhelming confirmation of how engaging instrumental instruction teaches a wide variety of skills including reading, listening, respect, leadership, self-confidence, teamwork .... the list goes on," he wrote.
To see parent and teacher testimony on the program, see their video at bit.ly/y7mq7e. For the research Heagy references on the benefits of music education, visit bit.ly/n9S5Ct and bit.ly/z79xeh.
• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.