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Saving Sixth Grade Music in the Anchorage School District **UPDATED**

by Linda Kellen Biegel

2010 Hanshew Middle School Band

Not many people in political circles know that I credit music with saving my life.

I started playing the piano when I was six-years-old. I often kicked and screamed about practicing, but my mother was determined and I continued through my entire school career.

In sixth grade, I discovered the snare drum and concert band. I absolutely loved playing music with a group. That was around the time that I discovered that music was an escape from the insanity of my life at home.

Unfortunately in high school, I discovered that drugs and alcohol provided a different kind of escape. I dropped out of any band activity, though I continued with piano. My grades plummeted and it became clear that with only a 2.5 GPA junior year, I wouldn’t be getting into a decent college…

…until I started auditioning as a piano major. Suddenly, I was accepted at schools we couldn’t afford, like Temple University and Berkley School of Music. I received some modest scholarships to a couple of smaller schools but ended up going back home to Ohio and The University of Dayton. It was there that I truly fell in love with their much-touted marching band and was a member all four years. My membership in that band was my lifeline at a time when I was sinking deeper into alcoholism and depression.

When I made it to Alaska and sobriety, music reclaimed me. I even made a very tiny living for several years in the Anchorage music scene. Those were some of the best years of my life.

Music has now come full circle in my family. Morrigan took piano lessons for awhile. However, when a music teacher in grade school taught the kids to play penny whistle, we discovered that my daughter had a knack for the woodwinds. She started on the clarinet in sixth grade band and after only a couple of months, auditioned and was accepted into the Honor Band.

While the idea that music enhances math skills has been long claimed, recent studies show a more direct correlation between music and algebra:

Helmrich divided the students into three groups: Those who had received formal instruction on a musical instrument during the sixth, seventh and eighth grades; those who received choral instruction during those same years; and those who received no formal musical training.

She found the students who studied music significantly outperformed their peers. “Formal instrumental instruction impacted algebra scores the most,” she reports. “Choral instruction also affected scores, but to a lesser extent.”

From our experience, my husband and I noticed that as our daughter started to learn clarinet in sixth grade, she began to struggle less with her algebra assignments. Now, she’s two-years ahead in mathematics.

The video below is of the 2010 “Sonic Boom,” the end-of-the-year mass-performance of all sixth grade bands in the Anchorage School District.

If Governor Sean Parnell and Mayor Dan Sullivan have their way, this long-time Anchorage tradition may disappear, along with the entire sixth-grade music program.

Per the Anchorage Symphony website:

We learned that last week the ASD Music Supervisor received a request for information from a school board member about the potential cost savings if 6th grade band and orchestra were to be eliminated.

The school board will have its final reading of and will be voting on the ASD budget on Thursday, Feb. 9, starting at 5:00 p.m. in the ASD Education Center Board room.

We can express our opinions regarding the importance of 6th Grade Band and Orchestra in the following ways:

1. Call or email the school board. To email the school board, send one message to and all seven members will receive it.
2. Testify at the Feb. 9 meeting. People can sign up to testify via the same email address or can call 742-4312. Testimony is taken in the order received.
3. Attend the meeting [5530 E Northern Lights Blvd, Anchorage] to show support for music education. Please wear concert dress or all black

The most important message is children must start an instrument early in life; middle school is too late. Personal stories have a big impact, especially from young people. This program has been cut over the years. Students used to start instrumental music in 4th grade, then the program was cut to starting in 5th grade and several years ago the program was cut to a 6th grade start. This year, 91% of ASD 6th graders are taking band and orchestra!

Remember: in order to testify at a School Board meeting, you must sign up with the Superintendent’s Office to testify at the meeting any time before 5:30 p.m., or one hour prior to the start of the meeting, whichever is earlier.

Cutting the sixth grade music program is just the latest of the bad possibilities from a school board that is desperate to find a solution that is least hurtful to the least number of students. If there is no increase in funding, the prospects are bleak. Those of you who read The Mudflats know that we’ve been spending quite a bit of time explaining what is happening to education in Alaska. We’ve told you about the several $$ million in outrageous fees Mayor Dan Sullivan has tacked on to the Anchorage School District and how he refuses to tax to the property tax cap. We’ve shared in several posts about Governor Parnell’s severe underfunding of the Department of Education in the budget currently before the Alaska Legislature. We’ve also described the horrible cuts the Anchorage School District is facing.

It is very, very important for folks to attend the Anchorage School Board Meeting and let their voices be heard. However, that MUST be followed up by contacting Governor Sean Parnell, Mayor Dan Sullivan, the Anchorage Assembly Members and the Alaska State Senators and Legislators. They must be told how important Alaska’s public schools are on a personal level.

I’ll see you on Thursday!

**UPDATE** (NOTE: There is no official action on the table at this time to cut 6th grade band/orchestra programs. The concern of music teachers/parents/musicians across the city comes from the fact that a member of the Anchorage School Board requested information as to the cost of the programs and currently, the Board is trying to figure out what cuts to make. When you testify Thursday, realize the Anchorage School Board is not the villain. Anger and frustration over the budget situation must be directed constructively (in a civilized way) at Governor Sean Parnell, Mayor Dan Sullivan, the Anchorage Assembly Members and the Alaska State Senators and Legislators. They are the ones who hold the purse strings.)



22 Responses to “Saving Sixth Grade Music in the Anchorage School District **UPDATED**”
  1. Lacy Lady says:

    Hopefully school administrators will some day realize that music is very important in education, for more than one reason. It seems that when there is a cut in school funds, it is always , or most always in the arts. For some reason——it is never sports. It’s like they think that their football players will make it to the big leagues.
    Several in our family have studied music. My husband’s Aunt Ella, at the age of 15 (1908)
    left her family home with $30.00 and traveled to Des Moines to study music at Drake Univ.
    She worked at a boarding house washing dishes to pay her room and board.
    She received her degree in music in 1913. Later she taught music at the Univ of Kansas.
    After her marriage—-she and her husband lived in Iowa, where she taught music until she was 90 years old.
    My husband and I both played in our High School band. And our grandson grad from Miami U. with a degree in music.
    So I am one who would fight to keep music in all schools.

  2. leenie17 says:

    How could music NOT have a tremendous impact on math skills…music is all about the numbers!

    Counting, dividing, fractions, rhythms, tempo, dynamics……

    Not only does music have a direct connection to developing math skills, I have seen that many students who are struggling and frustrated in academic classes are often the same ones who excel at music. It provides an incentive for them to work hard and helps develop those general educational skills that are so important to all of their learning – practicing, working together, paying attention to the instructor/conductor and peers, being self-motivated, etc.

  3. John says:

    Great story.

  4. akglow says:

    Thank-you Linda for this story. I have also sent an email to the school board, and voiced my support for the importance of having a 6th Grade Music Program. (I didn’t use my “inside” voice either)

  5. Zyxomma says:

    Linda, thanks for an excellent post. I have emailed the school board members.

    They might not read my email because I made it clear that I’m writing from New York City, but I told them how my experience playing music from a very early age and all throughout school helped make me a whiz at Algebra and in math in general. This straight-A student was a pianist, trombonist, guitarist (although not in school) and singer. I never scored below an A on a math test, and was in the 99th percentile for mathematical ability on aptitude tests (100th percentile for English, in case you were wondering).

    I have no children myself, but recognize that they are our future.

  6. fishingmamma says:

    “We got trouble, right here in River City.”

    • leenie17 says:

      Love it!

      I always thought that Robert Preston was the ultimate Harold Hill until I saw Dick Van Dyke perform it on Broadway in one of the revivals years ago. Quite the charmer!

  7. UgaVic says:

    I wish there was a way to add my voice to this cause and have it mean something to the wacky Mayor!!
    It seems his actions just go from bad to even worse, with no end in sight. It just makes me cringe for the kids.
    These studies that show imporvements are not done to just spend money but to HELP us understand the interconnecting ways our brains work and learn.
    Having done a tad of teaching over the years, mostly in elementary school I can easily support that any way to make kids connect with how math ‘works’ helps them in so many ways.
    Thanks Linda for bringing us another story of our this Mayor is not looking out for the kids!!

  8. Jeff says:

    The Anchorage Symphony Website is technically accurate, but potentially misleading. No one has proposed cutting sixth grade band and orchestra. As the person who asked the funding question, I do not intend to make such a proposal, and I don’t know of any other board member who does. We ask a lot of questions at budget time. I believe it is important for elected officials to ask questions before spending public money. If providing this program to about 2000 sixth graders cost $5 million, perhaps I would have suggested a cut. But at $1.5 million (approx), I don’t intend to recommend eliminating it.

    The proposed budget actually recommends increased class size, half time librarians, fewer counselors in high need positions, and other drastic measures. I do not believe that it will be possible to balance the budget without making cuts that harm the central mission of educating all students for success in life. We are not allowed to raise taxes. We are dependent on the funding level set by others. Based on the funding decisions that have been made, the school board will now be trying to find the least harmful way to balance the budget. If funding changes later in the year — as it sometimes does — the budget will be adjusted accordingly. If funding does not change, we will be left with the cuts made on Thursday night.

    Jeff Friedman
    School Board Member

    • ks sunflower says:

      As a school board member, Jeff, how are you and other board members going to fight funding decisions “made set by others.” Isn’t that part of your responsibility as well?

      It is not enough to try to find ways to adjust your budget once decisions are made, but you are the representatives of the school patrons, those whose children attend those schools and those who pay taxes to support the schools. Shouldn’t every board member be actively involved in standing against “those” who cut funding?

      What public relations storm is the school board going to set loose to combat the people who would slash school budgets? You are in a position to be the strongest advocates for the children. I can only hope that you and others on the board are actually fulfilling your duty to those children by doing everything you can to stop cuts and to provide the highest quality education possible.

      • Jeff, I tried to be very clear in this piece that a) this was a request for information and b) all of you at the Anchorage School Board are doing everything you can to play the very crappy hand that you’ve been dealt.

        Even the idea of the request made me nervous because I am well-aware that the cuts will need to come from somewhere unless the pressure is put where it belongs. That’s why my focus in the end is for folks to contact the Governor, the Legislature, the Mayor and the Assembly.

      • Jeff says:

        We do spend a lot of our time trying to explain to the Assembly and Legislature the consequences of their funding decisions. Many consider school board members and school officials to be just one more special interest group. In my experience, they give a lot more weight to what they hear from their constituents. Personal stories about how funding decisions impact their lives are far more persuasive then a school board member talking about what we are trying to do for children. Almost all will listen to us, but we don’t have nearly the impact as a constituent does. Especially a constituent who votes.

        • Alaska Pi says:

          Jeff- Thank you for coming here and sharing your thoughts and stance.
          my community is facing serious deliberations over what to do about the school budget too. I wish we had an open line of communication with board members.
          And , please do remind the other “electeds” that you all are too and have been entrusted by a constituency to do well for them. Way too much chest-puffing goes on about who’s top of the heap.and not enough looking at issues at hand.

          Thank you for updating to carefully and emphatically note this set of questions about music education came from a request for information , not a threat(yet) to the 6th grade music program in your city. It was there before and is clearer still now.
          And I am so glad it didn’t come from a 3-Rs person- sounds like you all have done decently for yourselves with at least one board member.

        • UgaVic says:

          Yes, thank you for letting us know more details on this.
          It gives us other places to get involved to assist all our schools, including the ANC system.
          Sometimes we tend to forget it it not just our local level that we can impact on.

  9. mike from iowa says:

    These kids don’t have to fail in school.rwnj are doing all the failing for them. They have built in excuses not to succeed. I only hope kids are more far-sighted than pols. If not, we will have a real educational crisis on our hands(and heads).

  10. Alaska Pi says:

    There are links in here to a number of studies which point to music study being valuable on multiple fronts in a child’s education, starting the day our kids start school:

    There is also ample evidence that constantly pushing the age we offer these studies to kids higher reduces the efficacy of the studies – just as waiting to teach second languages to kids until middle school does.
    Sixth grade is almost too late for many kids , depending on their learning styles.
    Please, Anchorage- do not make this mistake.
    Do not drop a valuable tool for education in some shortsighted notion you are being fiscally prudent.
    My tone deaf Pop was an administrator and teacher who made a career in the 50s, 60s, and 70s , of going to small financially struggling school districts and in a few years putting them on better footing financially, quality of education, and quality of staff.
    Pop, who had his harmonica confiscated and thrown overboard by shipmates in the Navy because he only ever learned to play Red River Valley, did his student teaching in an experimental school which required kids to participate in music studies from the beginning saw what these studies show today clear back in the late 50s. He was one of the early ones to push for algebra in middle school years if kids were ready and he got almost all of his 8th graders through algebra year after year, much to the consternation of high schools who didn’t know what to do with those kids as freshmen.
    We accept now that kids can learn more abstract mathematical notions earlier than we used to. In that acceptance, we must also keep the important tools like musical education which create the fertile ground for kids to learn those notions.
    I do hope this board member looking at cost cuttings to music programs is not a 3-Rs type because so many of those folks are even more tone deaf than Pop was and don’t “get” what he cpuld see with his eyes if not hear with his ears.
    Go ANC!

  11. thatcrowwoman says:

    Last night our school sang at Family Literacy Night at my high school. I had goosebumps, which Grandma Shorty, of blessed memory, said was the Spirit moving. Grandma Shorty taught me that God is Love, and the Love was definitely with us at school last night.

    Music brought us love and peace, and is a lifeline in our community. Taking music from students in our schools is just wrong in so many ways. Good luck, Anchorage. May love, through music, occupy our hearts.

    (I started clarinet in 6th grade band, also, too, and still remember playing recorder in 4th grade…”My grandfather’s clock…”) To this day, I always have a song in my heart if not on my lips.)

    Johnny Cash sings My Grandfather’s Clock:


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