All of the campaigning against cuts to the elementary band and strings program may be having an effect.
Vancouver school board chair Patti Bacchus submitted on April 22 a proposal to give the program a one-year reprieve using special holdback funds, so that a task force can figure out a way to make the program sustainable in the future.
The VSB had announced on April 8 that it had a budget shortfall of $12.34 million and put forward a number of proposals to balance the budget. These proposals included cutting the continuing education program and decreasing the number of school days each year, among others.
One of the recommendations made was to eliminate the band and strings program for a savings of $630,651.
“School boards all over B.C. are facing some terrible decisions,” Bacchus says. “With our funding being frozen by the Clark government, and our costs continuing to rise, and we have to submit balanced budgets. So I think we feel that we’re really in a corner.”
Bacchus’s proposal came shortly after a rally at the VSB by concerned parents and students. A group of more than 20 students played their strings on the steps of the building, and parents milled around, watching their children and talking to media.
Sheila Sontz says that her 10-year-old daughter loves the program. “It’s her favourite thing about school,” she says. “They learn to feel the responsibility of showing up on time and contributing to the group, and the music and the culture, you know, there’s more to life than math.”
Parents are worried about what might happen if their children don’t have access to programs like these. Melanie Antweiler’s children are too young to enroll in the program, but she wants it to be available to them when they are older.
“Music teaches so much more than how to play an instrument,” she says. “It teaches communication; it keeps some kids in school. It is something that no matter what language a kids speaks, they can share it with their class.”
She understands the consequences well, because she benefitted from programs like these herself. “The skills that I learned there are what got me through my PhD,” she says.
While the parents are concerned about the potential negative impact on their child’s development, the kids’ reasons for wanting to keep the program are simple. It’s fun.
“I really like it. I like playing violin; it’s like my favourite instrument,” says Sydney Venter, a Grade 5 student. “Well, and piano. I like them both,” she adds, smiling.
When asked how she would feel without the program, her answer was also simple. “I’d be disappointed,” she said, “because I really like playing.”
Chloe Cady is another Grade 5 student who loves the program. “I love violin. It’s just amazing,” she says. “I love playing violin with my friends, and having [our teacher] accept that I’m left-handed—I’m a left-handed violinist—the effort that she puts in to let me play violin and trying to teach me that, it’s just amazing.”
“I’m really sad,” she says, “because not only does it help my violin, but it develops friendships and stuff, because it’s the only place where you could play with your friends.”
Many families can afford to send their kids to private lessons, but the parents emphasize that there are also many who cannot.
“If we really wanted her to have violin lessons, we could afford to do that,” says Colleen Payne, whose daughter has been in the strings program for two years. “But, what I think is so important is it makes it accessible and available to everybody. I think everybody should have the opportunity to play an instrument.”
Bacchus is sympathetic to these complaints, and feels that the provincial government has put her in a tough position. She says that with all the funding cuts in the last several years, there is not much more they can cut that isn’t essential.
“It’s like you’ve picked over the carcass again and again, any fat was gone years and years ago,” Bacchus says. “We’ve gone through the muscle, we’re down scraping at bones. And unfortunately, on the list we see things like psychologists and counsellors, and band and strings programs. It’s pretty heartbreaking.”
The board will vote on the proposals on April 30.