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Teachers, parents take first steps to form communitywide advocacy group for music education in Grand Forks public schools

Group members hope to increase awareness of the importance of music education among the public and school district leadership in light of potential budget reduction measures for 2022-23 school year

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Eli Zerr rehearses with the Northern Valley Youth Orchestra's Philharmonic this week. Zerr is among 23 new members, selected from throughout the state, to serve on North Dakota State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler's Student Cabinet. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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Music teachers in the Grand Forks school system are organizing an advocacy group to rally community support for music education in anticipation of a second round of budget cuts by school district administration.

A group of about 20 teachers, parents and community members met this week at Popplers Music store to discuss goals and strategies to build and maintain support for music education.

The goal is to create a music advocacy group “to ensure that local students will continue to have access to the wide-ranging benefits of a quality music education. A music advocacy group would help parents, community members, and music educators from across all school campuses unite behind a shared message and vision,” Katie Svendson wrote in a letter to potentially interested participants.

Svendson, band teacher at South Middle School, led the meeting, assisted by Claire Barhite, orchestra teacher at Kelly and Viking elementary schools and Schroeder Middle School, and Erin Cummings, orchestra teacher at Lake Agassiz and Wilder elementary schools and Valley Middle School.

Though teachers are organizing the group, “We envision this as more of a parent- or community-led group,” Barhite said.

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Organizers also seek volunteers, especially parents, who will share their views on the value of music education at future School Board meetings, including meetings set for Monday, Nov. 8, and Nov. 22.

Financial challenges

The district reduced its annual budget by about $4 million for the 2021-22 school year and, in the past, administrators have indicated that $6 million or more may need to be trimmed from the 2022-23 budget.

Some of the budget reduction for 2021-22 was realized through retirements and resignations. Because of those changes, some teachers have taken on increased workloads. For example, Janelle Huber, a band instructor at Red River High School, has additional responsibilities as a band teacher at Kelly, Lake Agassiz and Winship elementary schools, she said.

The target figure for reduction of the '22-23 school year budget has not been finalized by the School Board’s finance committee, according to Scott Berge, business manager for the school district.

At the Popplers meeting, parents of students in Grand Forks schools talked about the benefit of music education for their children. Jessica Zerr, a UND faculty member, has two sons who are involved in band and orchestra.

“Music gives both of my children a way to express themselves that would not be available to them otherwise,” Zerr said. “It’s an incredible asset. I’d like to see that stay.”

Jennifer Peterson, a pediatrician with Altru Health System and the mother of three, including a ninth-grader at Grand Forks Central High School, said, “It’s important that kids have an opportunity to do things that don’t get them in trouble.”

In music education, students learn “organizational skills, time management, how to be dedicated to something,” Peterson said. For her ninth-grader, involvement in music is “teaching him that hard work can pay off.”

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Music education provides “inclusion for kids who may not be involved in other activities,” she said.

Work ethic

Zerr added that music builds a strong work ethic in students.

“They have to practice, practice, practice; there is no substitute,” she said. “There’s accountability not only to the conductor or the director, but to the other people in the section. They have to stick with it, and the struggle is good.”

Several in the group cited the social and emotional health benefits of music education. Kara Eickman remarked on the “continued development of the imagination” and music as an “outlet for stress relief and the healing aspect of music.”

“(Music) helps calm the mind in a way that’s different from physical activity,” Zerr said. It also helps students find “a place of belonging.”

Ann Folson observed that equity is an important value in the district, and noted that music lessons and instruments are available free for all kids in grades K-12.

The teamwork required of members in a musical group is unlike teamwork in any other area, said Paul Boese, who retired in spring 2020 after a 21-year career as a band and orchestra teacher in Grand Forks middle and elementary schools.

“You get them started, but they’ve got to rehearse on their own,” Boese said. “They have to work through it themselves. It’s teamwork on a different level, a much deeper level.”

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Among students whose names appear on year-end honor rolls, he commented, most are involved in music.

As a student, “you get from music what you can’t get anywhere else,” Huber said.

The group’s next meeting is tentatively set for 7 p.m. Dec. 7 at Popplers. Anyone who is interested in attending is asked to check with a music teacher in their child’s school for more information.

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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