by Thomas Hochman
In mid-April, the OES administration announced its plans to discontinue the 6th grade strings program. The current school year will be the program’s last. This decision was made due to consistent under-enrollment in the middle school strings sections over the last decade.
But the decision to cut the sixth grade strings program has been met with frustration amongst both Lower and Middle School parents.
Shortly after the decision was made, an email titled “OES Strings Program: a call to action” was sent around to a large number of affected parents, voicing concerns over the decision making process in regard to the administration’s choice to terminate the course.
The email was styled as a petition. It demanded the reinstatement of the Strings program as a whole — asking specifically that Strings teacher Angelika Furtwangler’s hours would not be reduced, and claiming that the identities of the strings players were being devalued.
The email also included a request that the strings program be audited to ensure that it was meeting pedagogical standards.
There was reasoning, however, behind OES’s decision to cancel the program.
To justify spending the tuition dollars to offer a class, OES requires a minimum of eight students to be enrolled. Nancy Teskey, the Music Department chair, says that the middle school strings classes have only met that standard one time since she joined the school 15 years ago.
Even though there are over eight students in the middle school interested in taking the class, it is impossible to have classes that cross grade levels. Each respective grade has their own rotation, allowing for little maneuverability.
As a result, each grade needs eight students interested in strings — and with an average of just sixty-five students in each grade, it’s difficult to offer specialized classes like strings.
OES has decided to compensate for the removal of the 6th grade strings section by adding an afternoon class starting next fall to the “zero period orchestra,” a group that practices from 8:00 – 8:45 on Thursday mornings. This program allows for students all across the middle school grades to practice together en masse and retain their skills.
However, second grade parent Shaan Devaraj expressed her worry that, “It is easy to demolish something and it will take a very short time to do that, but building that back will take a very long time. I feel is that there is no effort to explore options to preserve what we have. I see the eagerness to get rid of the program and not to work with parents and community to find a creative way to preserve the program.”
Meetings have been organized by the OES administration to discuss their decision with the parents of future strings students.
Nevertheless, Shaan believes that, “All the reasons given in the meetings are not well thought through. My question is, ‘What actions or efforts did the administration make to continue the program?’ School tends to hire lot of administrative staff but they’ve cited the reason for cutting the Strings program as the cost. That seems short sighted.”
In addition, Shaan mentioned that “I never see any mention of the Strings program and the achievement of the Strings players. I feel like there is lot of bias against the Strings program. There seems to be some politics in play in the music department and that is also influencing the administration’s decision.”
“We choose OES because it gives our kids a well rounded opportunity to excel in every aspect of their lives, including arts, but the school is going in the opposite direction. Now we are denying them the opportunity to pursue their passion.”
“No efforts been made to help us understand why and what we can do as a community to improve the Strings section. Instead we were waiting for it to die. Honestly, that is a real shame,” says Shaan.
“It’s a complex situation,” explains Nancy Teskey. “We had a meeting last year in the spring and met with the parents saying that we needed more kids to run this (strings) program. Those middle school parents knew some of the strings program’s history. However, the parents of the lower schoolers were not aware of that, because they don’t know about the under-enrollment. They were given five years notice, but they felt like it was sprung on them.”
“What was communicated was that it can’t come and go and come and go like it has in the past,” she continued. “That’s not a sustainable program, and some kids will feel cheated if the program is run one year but there isn’t enough enrollment in their year.”
“We will have another meeting. There are a lot of different ideas from the parents – have a chamber ensemble, just keep the program – there are as many different ideas as there are parents. A lot of parents also understand that keeping Strings is just not feasible,” Nancy says.
Angelika, the current middle school strings teacher, will continue to teach lower school strings as well as the Zero Period Orchestra.
“We are still in the middle of this. I would love to have as many options as possible. I want all these kids doing everything. I want everyone playing an instrument, of course,” says Nancy.
In the end, it has to be understood that the administration is trying to spend its tuition dollars in the most logical way possible – and the parents want the best for their children. There is no perfect solution, but another meeting has been arranged for later in the month.