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Staff Sing To Preserve Arts For San Diego Students

Evening Edition

Aired 11/4/11 on KPBS News.

San Diego Unified teachers and staff are getting creative to support the district’s award-winning visual and performing arts programs.

— The fourth graders at Zamorrano Elementary in Southeast San Diego’s Bay Terraces neighborhood just got the instruments they’ll play for at least two years of music classes. The violin and viola players in Laara Smith’s morning class are still learning which strings are which.

Laura Smith, a music teacher for San Diego Unified, watches as Raynisha Fields, 9, performs a solo in her fourth grade orchestra class at Zamorano Elementary School, Oct. 17. 2011.
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Above: Laura Smith, a music teacher for San Diego Unified, watches as Raynisha Fields, 9, performs a solo in her fourth grade orchestra class at Zamorano Elementary School, Oct. 17. 2011.

But so far, the kids are pretty excited about orchestra.

“What I like about music," said Dione Dantes, "is like, having fun and showing classmates how you play it.”

Her classmate Jade Weatherford said the class helps her relax. Other students, like Chandany De Jesus, said the class is even educational.

“I like playing it because it makes me learn new stuff while having fun with an instrument,” she said.

Fourth graders at all city schools start learning to play instruments through the district’s visual and performing arts department. Their programs were given a national award by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. and the National School Boards Association –- in part because schools expanded access to arts education for all students, even in the face of major budget cuts.

The district has had to cut about $450 million from its budget since 2006 due to state funding reductions, and arts programs haven't gone untouched.

“We’ve been very fortunate to still be funded to be teachers here," said Smith, the orchestra teacher. "But money for instruments, or instrument repairs or special field trips for kids to go to the symphony or other arts projects have been often cut and are no longer available for students.”

This year the program’s materials budget of more than $250,000 was cut to $34,000.

The department still has about 25 teachers travelling to each of the district’s more than 100 elementary schools twice a week. Smith travels to four schools each week with David Rouillard, who teaches wind instruments. They both said one of the most challenging cuts has been to funds for instrument repairs. Rouillard said the instruments take a beating particularly in the hands of fourth and fifth graders.

“They get very frustrated, as do I," he said. "I do my best to fix everything I can. But they don’t understand that it's their instrument and not them. Especially because I can’t maintain them like I used to. I used to be able to take them all in, but now we’re all like, 'Oh, that’s good enough, that’s good enough.' But you want a perfect working instrument for a new student.”

The visual and performing arts department director, Dr. Karen Childress-Evans, is getting creative about making up for as many of the cuts as possible. The department has been selling a $5 CD, and Saturday they’re holding a particularly special fundraiser.

“We decided to come up with this idea of 'Glee,' since it’s hot right now," Childress-Evans said. "We would see who wanted to sing and I thought we’d get 30 people, maybe 20, if I was lucky. And we ended up with more than 60 people. And I thought, OK, this is good! Now can they sing?”

Those staff have been practicing at Taft Middle School in Serra Mesa since the beginning of October. Ticket proceeds from Saturday's concert will go toward paying for instrument repairs, textbooks and field trips to places like the symphony.

It’s not just arts and music teachers who stepped in to form the choir.

“This is totally outside the box, you know, bringing people in the district together to raise money for a wonderful cause,” said Gery Petill, food services director for the district. He said rehearsals have brought back memories of his college days, when he sang and acted.

“I actually make kids do hard things," said Stephanie Kunugi, a speech pathologist at Challenger Middle School, an arts magnet. "I have kids that have social anxiety and are stutterers. And I figure I make them do hard things. And singing is something that’s a challenge for me, so I figured I'd take a risk.”

Rueben Littlejohn is a school police lieutenant. He said he’ll be performing alongside a couple of the officers he oversees.

“I studied music as a child and even had my own little group at one point," he said. "And it really made a difference in my life, in terms of who I am and my ability to feel comfortable in front of a crowd and all those sorts of things that are important in our adult lives.”

But exposure to the arts pays off long before students are living those adult lives, according to Childress-Evans.

“We all know the research behind all of this," she said. "Students who are involved in the arts do better in school, they behave better, their attendance is definitely better. They’re more prepared to go on to college and they’re more successful socially as well. So these are really wonderful things. We can’t give our students a better gift than the arts.”

Choir volunteers think it’s an important enough gift that students should keep getting it, even as the district faces further funding cuts.

The All-Staff Sing Out will take place in the Taft Middle School Auditorium, Saturday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10.

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