An Achievement of Note in Springfield
Last Spring, Gary Bernice raced into a banquet hall, leapt on top of a chair, and led 100 young jazz musicians in a full-blown, off-the-charts performance at the NEPR Arts & Humanities Award. I knew I had to meet him.
The Springfield High School of Science and Technology (Sci-Tech) welcomed Bernice as its new band director in 2007. Initially comprised of only 20 students, the band has grown 15-fold under Bernice’s direction.
So why is this important to the region’s business community?
Today, just as in 2007, the vast majority of students have never picked up an instrument before meeting Bernice. In fact, an entire generation of students within the Springfield public schools has had little to no exposure to the visual and performing arts.
There are 2,076 teachers in the district; only 70 are visual- and performing-arts teachers. Currently, 11 elementary schools have no designated art teacher; many schools have a part-time instructor. In that case, students receive only 24 hours of instruction during the entire course of the school year. What’s more, it’s up to each school principal to determine whether or not to offer visual and performing arts as part of the school’s curriculum.
With a student population of 25,000 and so few arts educators, you can see why some kids get little or no art, music, theater, or dance.
I recently spoke with Carol Hausamann, a retired Springfield public-school drama teacher. She said it was a sad day in 1992 when the decision was made to cut visual and performing arts from the district’s curriculum.
Wayne Abercrombie, director of the Children’s Chorus of Springfield, recently told me about the physical effect of not having vocal music in the schools. “Kids come to our choir without developed vocal muscles,” he said. “The good news is, we can do something about it.”
I’m not saying that the Springfield public schools have no visual and performing arts. I’m saying there aren’t nearly enough — especially when you consider the positive impact they have on students’ academic performance.
A recent longitudinal study among at-risk youth found that 75% of eighth-graders from poor households showed significantly higher scores in science and reading when involved in the arts from kindergarten through elementary school. With 80% of students within the district coming from low-income households, Springfield should take this study to heart.
Just under 84% of Sci-Tech students are from low-income households and are already proving that such a relationship with the arts can be extremely beneficial. According to Bernice, students who were enrolled in band for more than one year have a graduation rate of 80%. Students who stayed in band for two or more years have a dropout rate of 0%.
Keep in mind: the band is a pretty significant proportion of Sci-Tech’s students. This fall, Bernice had 588 students — nearly half the school — trying to get into the band. He could take only 300.
Without diving too deep into the data, it seems pretty clear that art, music, theater, and dance are more than extracurricular activities. And with a decreasing district graduation rate of 52.1% (down from 53% in 2010), the Springfield public schools could use some more of Bernice’s graduation magic.
In a perfect world, every Springfield school would have a Gary Bernice engaging his students and making music. That’s not possible, but with compelling data about the efficacy of programs like the Sci-Tech jazz band and an annual district budget of more than $410 million, it’s clear that we could be doing better.
The Springfield public schools’ number-one core value is: “our students will always come first.” Given this, I trust we’ll see the return of visual and performing arts to the curriculum in every classroom, and in every school, in the district.
Nancy Urbschat is president of Springfield-based TSM Design.