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Ashland cuts strings on violin program

As Ashland Middle School student Rilynn Misa practices her violin, her younger sister, Jordan, watches eagerly, hoping she'll also have the opportunity to learn to play the instrument through the district's fifth-grade strings program.

But budget cuts silenced the program last school year, and unless it's reinstated by fall 2011, when Jordan will enter fifth grade, she'll have to take private lessons — an expensive option, said her mother, Amanda Misa.

"It does get very expensive, and you don't really want to pay a lot when the child's just picking up the instrument for the first time," Misa said.

"It's important enough to our family that we're going to try to work it out, but many families probably won't, so their children won't have that opportunity," Misa said.

A group of parents and students is asking Superintendent Juli Di Chiro to reinstate the fifth-grade strings program at the district's three traditional elementary schools this academic year, but Di Chiro says there's no money available.

"There's no argument that it's important — everything we cut is important," she said. "We just can't do anything until the economy starts to turn around."

Last academic year was the first in more than two decades that the district has not had a fifth-grade strings program, Di Chiro said.

Already, Ashland Middle School's orchestra is feeling the effects of the cut, said Gerry Pare, who teaches orchestra at the middle and high schools.

Only 12 sixth-grade students are signed up for the sixth-grade orchestra this academic year — compared to 30 to 45 that signed up in past years, she said.

"I do look at those registrations and, only 12 — that's a little troubling. It's worrisome," she said.

Typically, between 15 and 20 students participate in the sixth-grade strings camp in July, but this summer only eight did, Pare said.

"The registrations don't look as high, and if the numbers aren't there, the program will dwindle," she said.

Pare said it's important for children to have the opportunity to learn stringed instruments in elementary school, when the motor skills required are easier to acquire.

Though Di Chiro tried to save the program, there wasn't enough money to pay for additional staffing, she said.

Fifth-grade strings teachers must travel to each of the district's three traditional elementary schools and spend at least 30 minutes tuning instruments and setting up before class, she said. Funding the program probably would mean expanding the hours of a part-time music teacher in the district, Di Chiro said.

Last spring, Pare sent the superintendent letters that each of the 120 Ashland middle and high school orchestra students had written about why the strings program was important to them.

District parents and students say they understand the budget situation is dire, but they hope the district can find a way to fund the program this academic year.

"I do think it's a very important program," said Nadine Kanim, whose 19- and 14-year-old daughters participated in it and went on to play in higher-level orchestras and attend state competitions. "It was instrumental in getting both of my children into the orchestra program, all the way through middle school and into high school.

"I think we will lose students if we don't fund it, and I would not presume to tell the superintendent where she needs to spend the money, but I do think it's a really important program and as soon as we can get it up and running again, I would encourage the district to do so," she said.

Di Chiro said it's unlikely the program will resume until the economy has stabilized and state officials stop predicting funding cuts for schools.

"We're very, very tight in our budget right now," she said. "It would not be unexpected to get another budget cut for next year. I really don't feel we're in the position to add additional staffing at this time."

The district has about $1 million in a savings fund, but it expects it may need to use the money next academic year to deal with potential budget cuts, Di Chiro said, adding that state funding forecasts so far look bleak for the coming two years.

Misa said she hopes the fifth-grade strings program isn't forgotten by the time the district has money to fund it.

"I feel like it's only the parents that have had another child go through it that even realize what their younger children are missing," she said.

Hannah Guzik is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.