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Nevada: Finding Creative Solutions for New Problems

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Anne StephenSchool music programs in Nevada are facing unique and unprecedented challenges. With a state economy that is driven almost entirely by sales tax, and a work force that is largely dependent on the service industry (primarily gaming and tourism), national economic woes have had a terribly destructive impact on school budgets across the state.

Fortunately, there have been few layoffs among fine arts staff, says Anne Stephen, the president of the Nevada Music Educators Association, and the NMEA is working diligently to implement creative solutions to help combat some awfully negative financial statistics. In a recent CD interview, Stephen elaborated on the plight of the music program in Nevada, while providing a detailed look at the ongoing creative efforts to bolster the arts across the Silver State.

Fortunately, there have been few layoffs among fine arts staff, says Anne Stephen, the president of the Nevada Music Educators Association, and the NMEA is working diligently to implement creative solutions to help combat some awfully negative financial statistics. In a recent CD interview, Stephen elaborated on the plight of the music program in Nevada, while providing a detailed look at the ongoing creative efforts to bolster the arts across the Silver State.

Choral Director: How are school music programs doing in Nevada?
Anne Stephen: All of the angst and turmoil occurred in May and continued over the summer, so everyone now is just getting their feet back on the ground and dealing with it. I live in Clark County, which is the largest district in the state, and I can say that there we did not lose any fine arts teachers. Layoffs rarely happened in the state. Superintendents were very good about finding places for everyone. Some teachers may not be teaching where they want to teach, but everyone that wanted a job pretty much has one.

CD: That is good to hear.
AS: We compiled a report on this a few months ago, and I was able to speak with somebody from every district in the state. I had expected to hear just dire news, but I learned that the state of music education isn’t too bad throughout Nevada.

I want to preface this with a little bit of information about Nevada that explains a little bit about our situation. Nevada is the seventh largest state in the country geographically, but it’s the 35th in terms of population. That means that we’re spread out over a vast amount of land. The state legislature meets every other year. They last met was in the spring of 2009, so they meet will meet again in the spring of 2011. We have no state income tax, so for things like education and schools, we really only on sales tax.

CD: Wow!
AS: Yes, wow. And when the economy is like it is, no one is traveling here, and no one is spending money. Since the fiscal year began July 1, we are 9.3 million dollars behind where we were projected to be in May. When the legislature session ended earlier this year, they passed a budget based on these predictions and we’re already fairly substantially below that now, and this is only in November. What we are fearing is that the governor who, as an aside, is not very popular in the state right now for various reasons may have to call an extra session. If they do that, it’s going to cost more money to have the special session and it’s going to mean that we’re going to have to cut more, and we’re just on bare services now. The state budget for schools was cut by 12 percent. Most of the districts were able to keep music programs intact, although they admitted that they were not able to provide all the materials that they thought they needed to properly supply their programs.

CD: So fewer instruments and repairs and that sort of thing?
AS: Right. We do have high unemployment here. In Clark County, unemployment is 13 percent, and for the state it is at 12 percent, and that just reflects the people who are completely unemployed. We also have huge numbers of people whose jobs were cut back. So they’re still working, but maybe only 16-30 hours per week, and because they are working they don’t qualify for unemployment, and they can’t quit because if they do, they still won’t qualify for it. So funds are being cut everywhere, and as a result people aren’t buying anything and we aren’t collecting sales tax, and we aren’t getting any money for schools. August sales were down 24 percent across the state, as compared to last August, and that is typically a pretty big month for us.

CD: That sounds rather dour. Getting back to the nuts and bolts of it, what are you doing to keep programs going?
AS: We’ve done some creative things. The worst of the cuts were in Clark County, but statewide, in Washoe County which is the other large population center in the state, in the northwest corner of Nevada; the other counties are rural the districts dropped the solo and ensemble festivals. So the NMEA has picked that up and we now run the Washoe and Clark County solo and ensemble school festivals. Our state is split into four zones for music educators, and the northern zone which encompasses most of the rural areas and our state capital, Carson City puts on its own solo and ensemble festivals. So again, that’s creative thinking keeping things intact. They have done this now for at least five years. Out northeast zone also holds its own festivals.

We’re trying to keep programs going with the help of professional organizations. For instance, Nevada ACDA sponsors the middle school honor choir, so we are able to maintain that here in Clark County. ASTA is helping out with the middle school orchestra honor programs. We have an organization in Southern Nevada called the Southern Nevada Band Organization, and they are helping with the band honor ensembles. A lot of organizations are stepping in to help some programs stay around.

CD: Going back to the 12 percent cut that you mentioned in the school budgets statewide, how were you able to prevent music programs from being hit too hard by that?
AS: We weren’t able to do much. The way that most of the districts in our state work is that they are site managed. In other words, the state gives the money to the district, which gives money to principals and the school administration. They, and their communities, have the say in what is offered in their schools. So if a principal feels that a program isn’t strong or that numbers are going down, they are hard-pressed to justify keeping a music program if they can instead, say, hire another math teacher. I’m not faulting the principals they have a tremendous amount of responsibility right now, and they have to pass AYP and tests but they might consolidate a program, if possible. For example, if a choir teacher leaves, moves to another state, or retires, they might combine the five choir classes into two and then ask the band director to teach both band and choir. This happens a lot, especially with choir and theatre. This is better than nothing, but it’s not great.

We, as a board, decided in May, when people were saying, “You’ve got to do more to advocate,” that principals are not going to cut programs that have 400 kids in them. If teachers are struggling, we need to find a way to start at the site. If the site is where the organization of the power is, we have to make sure that the site is strong. So we’ve incorporated two grants: we have a grant to help teachers in-state to attend professional development and to help them get ideas, feedback, and learn new procedures that they can bring directly to their classrooms to make their teaching stronger and attract more students; and we also have a mentor grant that we’re just starting this year. Teachers that feel that they are struggling or need some help can shadow a master teacher, and we’ll pay for the sub. It’s not a lot, but it’s a start and this is what we’re trying to work on: helping teachers build their programs and get stronger so that they have a little more ammo when it comes to budget cut time. They’ll be able to say, “You can’t cut my program we’re strong, we’re doing this, that, and the other.”

We’re also encouraging community involvement.

CD: How so?
AS: The goal is to make fine arts fiscally attractive to administrators and communities. The more we service the communities, the better they will feel about how important these programs are. So we’re encouraging music teachers to get outside of the school, go into the community and show everyone that music is vital not only for a complete education for students, but as a part of our communities, as well.

Something we’re going to talk about at our next meeting is going to be to encourage our members to have Nevada tours, and our travel grants will help support this. This will help get our schools into the rural communities to do exchange concerts, or have the northeast zone come down and perform for the southern zone, and that sort of thing. This will help us get into seeing what everyone else is doing, and give kids a chance to help other kids. We have some one-room schoolhouses in some areas, and it would be wonderful to get a chamber group to travel to these one-room school houses and give workshops and music performances.

There is one of those schools in our county that is literally K-12 in one room. There is one teacher who teaches everything math, science, general music and someone donated a violin to the school. She went online and learned how to teach violin, and then taught everyone in the school on this one instrument. The superintendent was very moved by this and ended up buying the school more violins. I just found this out last month, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get a group from a larger school to go in there and help these kids?”

CD: In formulating an action plan, are you looking at what other states are doing for their own music education programs?
AS: I just started my presidency as of July 1st, and this is something we’re still looking into. We are lumped in with the smaller states because of our population, even though we’re large in land, so we’re trying to look at what other large states with small populations are doing. They are also calling us to find out what we’re doing, and we are all learning by trying different things. States that have a different geography and population density have problems that are very different from ours. Nevada really is unique. We’re just starting to work on the ground floor of this advocacy thing.

CD: As an educator, is there anything in particular that you would like to see other music teachers doing?
AS: I’ve been retired for three years, and the changes that have occurred in that time are incredible. What I would like to see is what I mentioned earlier. Everyone needs to make it their goal to make fine arts fiscally attractive. I would like to see more community involvement. I’m a real big advocate of that. I would like to encourage more state tours, our members to have concerts in the community, maybe combine with other schools to rent a facility out in the community to do concerts and invite the public to come out. I’d also like to see more performances at the nursing homes, the veterans homes, and even in front of the state legislature. That’s something we used to do a long time ago, but we stopped doing it. In fact, we’re moving our state conference in 2011 to Reno, which is just a half-hour drive from Carson City, and we plan to do a lot of performing there and a lot of handshaking. Our members will talk to our legislative representatives so that they know who we are.

I think the key is servicing the community and helping the struggling teachers and the new teachers, to give them as much support and professional development as they need, and to be there when they have questions. If we can keep a teacher in a program for the first three years, then maybe we can keep them there for five years. And if we can keep a teacher in a program for five years, then maybe we can keep them there for 10 or 15 years. We have to provide professional development so that we can get teachers past those first three years.

CD: Is there anything that you’d like to share with other music educators around the country?
AS: There’s always a creative solution out there, so don’t give up. I’ve seen that in our meetings at the NMEA. When I was president-elect, the meetings were always just about the nuts and bolts. Now we really seem to be opening up and brainstorming a lot more to come up with ideas that will work for our state. Our boards in the past focused on the all-state convention, and we can’t just do that anymore; we have to focus on the health of music education, both specifically and generally. Creativity is the key. These are new problems we’re facing, and we’re struggling, but we’re going to make it.

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