My Turn: Second high school will further threaten liberal arts programs

Posted: Friday, February 06, 2004

Tell me it's an ugly rumor! My in box suddenly is flooded with maydays from parents and musicians who plead for my help in preserving the choral program at Juneau-Douglas High School. Haven't we been through this before? Throughout my 24 years in Juneau, the school's choral program has waxed and waned in response to administrative whim. For many years the entire music program was given to a single teacher. I don't know how those teachers (Bernie Hendricks and Stan Sells) survived, but they would have done anything to keep the full music program going.

When I brought my daughters here from Deerfield, Mass., in 1980, they were not at all happy to leave their New England home. However, it took only a single day at JDHS to acclimate my elder daughter to school, Juneau and Alaska. It was the choir of Bernie Hendricks that transformed her attitude. She spent two years singing in the choir and remembers the experience as one of the happiest of her life. The regional music festivals and honor choirs were exhilarating and unforgettable experiences for her. At graduation she was named the outstanding musician at JDHS. Yes, she was a fair musician, but the award was given more because of her dedication to the choral program. If a concert needed ushers, she was at the auditorium handing out programs. When the choir room needed to be painted, she was there all day Saturday with brush in hand. The choir room was her haven and the choir her family.

I spent 10th grade in 1,700-student Knoxville High School. Our athletic teams were state champions about as often as not, our large band traveled out of state with the football team and our choir was one of the finest in the South. Each of our four ROTC companies even had its own glee club. Our building was condemned, and four new schools were built. I spent my last two years in a school with an enrollment of 485.

Our band was small and we traveled nowhere. Still, there was no thought of cutting music programs anywhere in the city. From the beginning our new school, as small as it was, had a band, an orchestra and a choir with a separate conductor for each.

The rumblings of discontent about the proposed valley high school seem to grow louder by the day - and with good reason, I should think. Do we voters really think of the ultimate cost to us when we endorse such a huge commitment? I see no fiscal justification for such an undertaking, especially in view of the current threats to programs and faculty positions at JDHS.

When William Demmert was Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Alaska Southeast, there was pressure to eliminate the university's music program. He told me that he could not imagine a liberal arts program without music even if it meant that other elements of the program had to take up some of the fiscal slack. Well, Dean Demmert left UAS and his philosophy of liberal arts education went with him. As we full-time members of the music faculty retired, our positions were eliminated. Within only a couple of years, the music program was gone. Only a handful of adjunct teachers offer a smattering of music instruction now. There is no music history, no music theory, no choir, no band, no ensemble of any kind - only a vestige of the program that once existed.

Should something similar happen at the high school? If a choral program cannot be supported at one school, how on Earth can it be supported at two schools? Let's stick with one school and focus our attention on equipping it with a full staff of competent people, a complete liberal arts curriculum and the equipment needed to function efficiently! I work part-time at JDHS. As I walk the halls, and see all the people and equipment required for the school to function efficiently, I wonder how it all could be duplicated a few miles away. And for what purpose? JDHS has been renovated at great expense, yet its enrollment is declining, not increasing as was forecast when the new school was proposed.

I have one final question for the reader to ponder: If the high-school choral program is abolished while the instrumental program is retained, does this imply that the human voice is a less important instrument to cultivate than is the flute, the trombone or the drum? If the choral program at JDHS is cut, there certainly will be more than one child left behind.

• John B. d'Armand is the executive director of The Paul Ulanowsky Memorial Foundation for Chamber Musicians.

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