Finale for music program

BTEC: The city school system's financial crisis brings a sad coda for after-school training of young musicians.

December 18, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Instead of picket signs, they cradled violins. Instead of chanting, they played "Song of the Wind."

Dressed in ties and patent leather shoes, 15 children sat in the rotunda of City Hall yesterday - as officials and businessfolk bustled about - and staged a gentle protest, showing off their talents on behalf of the Baltimore Talent Education Center, an after-school music training program that serves 180 children from 30 schools across the city.

"The BTEC is closing because we're running out of money," said 6-year-old Lamont Dozier III, a first-grader at Federal Hill Preparatory School. "It's sad."

The citywide after-school program - which teaches students to play instruments such as violin, cello and piano, and gives them opportunities to perform publicly - will be closing its doors at the end of the month.

The school system, facing a financial crisis, has reassigned the three full-time teachers who run the weekly lessons, saying their talents will be better used in music classrooms in schools.

The teachers' redeployment is the result of an immense school system staff reduction; layoff notices were sent to more than 700 employees last month.

Although parents and supporters of the music program are grateful that the program's teachers didn't lose their jobs, they're concerned that the talent education center will close.

"We don't want to see this program lost," said Catherine Washburn, who has two children participating in the music group. "The parents ... can work to fund this program, even if it means a lot more work on our part. We're willing to do that."

The citywide music program - in its 29th year - costs about $250,000 a year to run. The city school system budgets $147,000 to cover the salaries of the full-time teachers.

Registration fees and parent-run fund-raisers pay for part-time teachers, custodial fees and other costs.

The full-time teachers' salaries might not seem like a lot of money to program supporters lamenting the cut, said school system spokeswoman Vanessa C. Pyatt, but the cash-strapped system, facing a deficit of $52 million, cannot afford to keep the teachers in an after-school program.

"This decision is based strictly on the school system's current financial situation," Pyatt said.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, a professional musician, said yesterday that he had sent a letter to schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland suggesting that she not cut the funding for the citywide music program.

"It concerns me," O'Malley said yesterday while the orchestra played in the City Hall rotunda two stories below. "This type of music program is very important to helping our students do better in math and reading and other academic subjects."

"I don't think anyone would dispute that the program has made a difference," Pyatt said. "And we hope at some point to be able to come back to the table and revisit this and reinstate the program."

Pyatt said the program was created at a time when the public schools had next to nothing to offer parents who wanted to expose their children to music.

"That has changed, however," Pyatt said, noting that several new partnerships have increased the number of school music programs from 18 to 54 in the past five years.

That's little consolation to students like Alida Gerritsen, a junior at Polytechnic Institute, who has been playing violin in the after-school music program for 12 years.

She hasn't joined the orchestra at Poly, she said, because the citywide music program offered her what a large school orchestra could not - intensive, three-hour Saturday lessons and one-on-one attention.

"We have a lot of dedicated teachers," said Alida, 16. "They dedicate a lot of hours."

Sun staff writer Tom Pelton contributed to this article.

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