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Educators enlist advocate in push to save programs

By Staff | Apr 15, 2009

Local teachers are hiring John Benham, an advocate of music, to prevent the slashing of 80 fine arts and music positions.
Not unlike a classic Western where a desperate village hires a professional gunfighter to thwart bullies, fine arts teachers in Lee County are hiring Benham to drive one simple message to the school board: Do not cut the arts.
Right now the Florida Legislature is struggling to contain a $3 billion deficit in state revenue, and officials from the Lee County School District said elementary art programs would be cut if the county’s budget shortfall reaches $51 million.
On Tuesday night a crowd of approximately 50 people sat in a conference room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Fort Myers hearing from Benham via telephone and Cape Coral resident Jeff Hanjian on how the same cuts were proposed in one of Atlanta’s biggest counties in 1995 until the community stood up.
“Music was a big part of my life when I was a teenager,” said Hanjian.
He attended Florida State University on a tuba scholarship and worked for 30 years in different school districts across the Southeast. Hanjian also worked for music manufacturers that supplied instruments to millions of students.
“In 1995 they went through the same thing you are going through here,” he said. “You are all in the same situation. The community was in a big uproar.”
Benham, president of the nonprofit Music and World Cultures, mobilizes school districts and communities to stress the importance of the arts.
Local donors are putting up $8,000 to bring Benham to Fort Myers later this month to organize disgruntled teachers and work with the school board on finding a solution.
“This is about finding solutions,” said Hanjian. “We aren’t in an adversarial position with the school board.”
According to Benham, Lee County’s idea to cut arts and music programs is more philosophical than economic. He said his efforts are focused on saving arts programs and not teacher positions.
“Your problem in Florida isn’t the money. The real problem is that people aren’t willing to pay for education,” said Benham.
He is calling for district teachers, the community and school district to get involved in the decision process by attending school board meetings and staging a grassroots campaign led by art teachers.
The campaign also includes developing a districtwide philosophy on music and the arts.
Most of the research shows that a child’s learning window for arts or music closes substantially by the age of 10, and other studies have shown that eliminating fine arts programs in elementary schools decreases middle and high school participation by 50 percent, said Benham.
He also pointed out that students would lose instructional time if the Lee County School District changes from a period day to a block schedule.
Perhaps the most profound argument in Benham’s arsenal is that cutting arts or music teachers is more expensive for schools in the long run.
“You just don’t save money by cutting a music program,” he said.
Traditional teachers and classrooms have to follow the Class Size Amendment, he said, while arts or music teachers can enroll up to 30 or 40 students. By cutting the classes more teachers will have to be hired to look over those students.
Lee County School Board Member Robert Chilmonik stressed community participation at the meeting in Fort Myers.
“If we go down the path we are going right now, it will kill the arts in the later grades,” he said. “The only way we can do it is with your participation. It’s the community that runs the school district.”
On Tuesday the school district canceled three of Superintendent James Browder’s community forums because the Legislature has not give any new information on the budget process.
Lee County School Board Member Elinor Scricca said to the audience that the forums are not canceled.
“The community forums will resume after we have more information,” she said. “They were postponed, not canceled.”
Jussi Doherty, choral director at Diplomat Middle School, said he is glad the meeting was organized.
“We have been talking among ourselves and tried to come up with a plan,” he said. “This isn’t something we could’ve done ourselves.
Teachers at Tuesday’s meeting said the school district made the decision to cut arts and music rather than from a mandate handed down by the Florida Legislature. They want the district to find a way to preserve the programs.
“I think the teachers believe it is up to the district, as far as the school district budget,” said Traci Pavel, a music teacher at Littleton Elementary in North Fort Myers.
Pavel is confident that many of the teachers will attend the next school board meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday.