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Kathleen Traphagen: Not smart to cut school art, music, phys ed

Last Wednesday’s chorus concert was the kind of magical evening that reminds me how fortunate we are to live in Amherst and send our children to Fort River School. About 100 children drummed, danced and sang together under the unruffled direction of one very special music director. The crowded auditorium rang with the appreciation of parents and families — including many of those “hard to reach” families that the district is continually challenged to meaningfully involve in the school community. And as I’ve noticed over the years I have had children at Fort River, many of those singing and dancing their hearts out with the most joy are the ones with complex behavior challenges in the classroom or on the playground.

As I sat in the audience, I was struck by the irony inherent in the district’s budget proposal to re-organize specials teacher assignments to save money, partially to help finance a new effort to reach those families who are isolated from the schools.

Joy and mastery in music and art leads many students who are otherwise struggling in the classroom to deeper engagement in school and the development of 21st century skills, such as perseverance, goal setting and executive functioning, that research is increasingly revealing are at the foundation of academic success.

All parents can take pride in watching their children perform or seeing their art pieces displayed on the walls of the school. Class, race and language barriers are reduced through chorus, band, orchestra, visual art shows and activities such as the jump rope club.

This does not happen by accident. This is the result of hard work on the part of the specials teachers. These teachers are integral members of our school communities. Their impact is not confined to 40-minute instructional time slots. Unlike grade-level teachers, their relationships with children and families span years. They understand the developmental trajectory of the children and build a multi-year relationship with families. They provide a valuable perspective on children’s strengths and learning styles that informs all the adults in the children’s lives. They support the classroom teachers in integrating music and arts into the curricula, further sparking student engagement and helping to make up for the woefully inadequate time for the arts in the weekly schedule. The specials teachers in our schools play a vital connecting role and bring a positive energy to the entire school community, energy that fuels student and adult engagement alike. This takes real time and a presence in the school to achieve.

Treating this job as if the teachers were vendors and assigning them across schools with little regard to the vital roles they play within the school community will destroy their ability to be the connectors in their schools. If we really want to make progress on the tough challenges of student engagement, subgroup performance and involvement of “at-risk” families, we should be learning from, building on and supporting the role of the specials teachers, not undermining their success.

Surely we can find $65,000 somewhere in the budget to take this ill-advised proposal off the table. My suggestions: $10,000 from the salary of the new grants manager, making this a $72,000 position; $10,000 from the increase in support staff for human resources (still leaving almost a $10,000 increase); $30,000 from the salary increase of the curriculum director K-12 (still leaving a $26,000 increase); $15,000 from the increase in the instructional coaching budget (still leaving a $250,000 increase).

Kathleen Traphagen of Amherst is a Town Meeting member who has three children at Fort River Elementary School.

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