Facing program cuts, Friends of Beaverton Music sound off to keep harmony in schools

by: TIMES PHOTO:  - Carolyn Talarr and Tom Colett are members of the Beaverton Friends of Music, a newly formed group that promotes the value of music and music instruction in schools.Being an advocate for music education in Beaverton schools has as much to do with promoting cognitive development and overall academic success as it does with nurturing the next Yo-Yo Ma or Harry Connick Jr.

That’s the nuance Tom Colett and Carolyn Talarr, strive to get across as advocates with the newly formed Beaverton Friends of Music.

“Music education is not just about music, but also what it does for kids’ academics,” says Colett, 30. “Music improves academic performance across the board as well as graduation rates. It’s a huge part of a child’s education.”

Most don’t argue Colett’s premise. It’s just that it tends to get lost or cast aside when the levels of funding, staffing and other crucial resources related to music and arts education fall prey to drastic cuts, such as the $37 million slashed from the Beaverton School District’s 2012-13 budget.

As the district and its School Board dig into a new budget cycle for the next school year, don’t expect anything less than a sustained cacophony from Beaverton Friends of Music. Formed in spring 2012, the loosely organized advocacy group, bound together in spirit, mission and a Facebook page with about 375 followers, wants to make sure school district leaders realize the importance of ongoing music instruction to a well-rounded education.

Colett, a six-year Beaverton resident who is pursing a master’s of fine arts degree through New York’s Bard College, says the changes wrought by the last budget cycle were hard for him and his musically inclined peers to swallow.

“As a result of the budget process, elementary school music was cut 50 percent district wide and middle and high school music programs were cut 30 percent,” he observes. “That’s opposed to 10 percent cuts for most other programs, with the exception of librarians,” whose positions were all but eliminated last year.

Blending voices

As the ongoing mission of Beaverton Friends of Music evolves, members take turns speaking out at Beaverton School District board meetings and budget listening sessions, while engaging as they can with parents and individual board members.

“We’ve been doing outreach with parents,” Colett says. “They’re very excited to hear there’s advocacy for (music education). People miss their music teachers and programs out there in the community. We’re helping to give voice to their concerns.”

In addition to pushing to make music programs a higher priority during the budget negotiation process, the Friends community hopes the district will adopt standards set by the National Association for Music Education. The association calls for a minimum of 90 minutes per week of music education for elementary students and three hours per week of instrumental- or choral-based instruction at the middle and high school levels.

“Our point is these are valuable programs, and they need to be prioritized and be part of the core curriculum,” Colett says.

Talarr, 52, volunteers as an English-as-second-language teacher as well as with the Portland Youth Philharmonic. The mother of a Southridge High School student compiled a list of highlights from studies touting the educational and developmental benefits of a strong musical-based education.

A 2011 study by The College Board she cited found students who take four years of arts and music classes in high school score “about 100 points better on their SATs” as opposed to students who take a half-year or less of music classes. The Houston Chronicle in 1998 reported significantly lower lifetime usage of illicit substances by “secondary students who participated in band or orchestra.”

“Elementary school is where we need to begin,” she says. “It’s also the place of the greatest neurological benefits.”

Budgetary dissonance

Maureen Wheeler, spokeswoman for the Beaverton School District, notes Beaverton Friends of Music has made a distinct impression through its outreach efforts and presence at monthly board meetings.

“Their voice is an important one to be heard,” she says. “We encourage people to come forward and advocate for the programs they’re passionate about. As you listen to (Friends of Beaverton Music) and talk to them, they’re passionate about music and its importance in our lives.”

She supports the group’s premise that quality music and arts education has positive influences on academic performance and development of career and life skills.

“That’s why we still have music programs in our schools,” she says. “Our job is to provide as complete an education as possible, obviously while balancing against what we’re able to afford as we prepare our annual budget.”

Talarr and Colett, the Friends’ de facto spokespeople, plan to follow that process closely while continuing to build up the group and reach as many ears in the district as possible.

Talarr admits some of the group’s frustration with recent music program cuts stems from the rich legacy of arts and music in Beaverton-area schools.

“People are used to having great music programs in Beaverton. The cuts have now gone past the critical point and are starving musicians from kindergarten on,” she says.

“It’s going too far in the wrong direction.”