After-school strings program strikes chord with Bellingham fifth-graders

As Cameron and Robin Meyer watched their daughter play violin in front of classmates at Silver Beach Elementary School, they couldn’t help but be proud of how much the fifth-grader had improved after just weeks of practice.

“It’s really fun for her to take that risk and play in front of the whole school,” mom Robin Meyer said. “She was practicing all weekend.”

Yet fifth-graders have found it harder to pursue their musical interests at Bellingham schools since a 2010 budget cut eliminated the fifth-grade strings program in the district.

This school year, community members and district officials, desperate to establish visual and performing arts as an educational priority, have put together a 10-week after-school strings program at local elementary schools. District officials hope to eventually return strings instruction back into the regular school day.

So far, parents are glad their kids at least have the after-school opportunity.

“I think it’s a positive experience for them,” Cameron Meyer said after watching daughter Miette perform.

The concert at Silver Beach Elementary on Tuesday, Nov. 25, was the final fifth-grade strings concert this fall for local schools. Happy Valley, Lowell, Birchwood and Alderwood elementary schools already performed this fall, and other elementary schools in Bellingham will offer the same 10-week program in either winter or spring of this school year.

About 10 to 20 kids at each school who had an interest in playing violin joined the program. If they could not afford an instrument, the district provided one for them. Parents did not have to worry about transportation, since a school bus waited after school for any kids participating, district Deputy Superintendent Mike Copland said.

At the end of the 10-week instruction, the kids had the ability to play some of their favorite songs, such as “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Copland said many members of the community told the district they were unhappy that the strings program was cut from the regular school day four years ago. This past summer, Copland led a visual and performing arts committee in the district that recommended the program be offered to fifth-graders for the 2014-15 school year.

Thanks to donors including the Bellingham Festival of Music and the Bellingham Music Coalition, the district has been able to offer the program for free to students.

“I think that there’s a lot of people in the community that understand that music education is really core to the overall education of every student,” Copland said.

Mark Schlichting, a longtime music teacher in Bellingham School District who retired in 2010, was approached to teach the 10-week program this year and happily accepted. He said he still loves seeing kids succeed.

“They dreamed of doing it and all of the sudden they have an instrument in their hands and they’re succeeding,” Schlichting said.

The visual and performing arts committee recommended that the district reintroduce the strings program during the regular school day in 2015-16, not just as an after-school program like it is this year.

But committee members recommended more than just adding the strings program. Other suggestions included giving kids general music instruction twice a week before fifth grade, and increasing support for visual arts and drama at all schools. Copland said the goal is to make the arts something more than just an extracurricular activity for students.

Jeff Hilburn, a fifth-grade teacher at Lowell Elementary whose son participated in the strings program this fall, said these activities can give kids a group where they feel they belong.

“Our goal is to try and get these kiddos passionate about learning, if it can be art or music or whatever,” Hilburn said.

Schlichting, who is also on the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation board, said the community has shown that they believe the arts are important for their kids, and the return of fifth-grade violin instruction could help generate more interest in music for kids as they grow older.

“It’s a springboard for other instrumental experiences,” Schlichting said. In sixth grade, kids are able to choose a band instrument, but he said since the fifth-grade strings program was taken away, the overall student involvement in music at Bellingham schools has gone down. He believes that will change if the arts are given a higher priority.

“Music has power over kids,” Schlichting said. “It’s more than just having participation and having numbers and having good institutional groups. It’s giving students a chance to succeed and flourish and belong to something, something good.”