Pass / Fail | So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

After teacher, parent complaints, LA school leaders abandon plan to cut orchestra classes

Advanced clarinet students practice at San Fernando Elementary School in Los Angeles Unified School District during the Fall 2013 semester.
Advanced clarinet students practice at San Fernando Elementary School in Los Angeles Unified School District during the Fall 2013 semester.
Ken Scarboro/KPCC

The Los Angeles Unified School District is reversing course on an unpopular proposal to reduce its elementary school orchestra program from a full year to just one semester.

A district spokesperson confirmed that schools receiving orchestra instruction next year will get it the entire school year - though the district is considering changing how schools are chosen.

KPCC reported in February that officials were proposing to spread the district's 32 full-time orchestra teacher positions among 320 schools starting in the fall. (VIDEO: Watch the committee meeting on the school board's website.) 

Parents and art teachers were furious. 

The change of heart means those teachers will serve 160 elementary schools next year, as they had this year.

Elementary orchestra teachers are based out of their cars, traveling to different schools on different days of the week to expose more students to at least some instruction. The elementary orchestra program has historically lasted an entire school year — though spaces at each school are limited. 

"Oh my god, that would be so wonderful," said Los Angeles Unified parent Isabel Shaff, when told of the district's decision. She said reductions in orchestra have been stressful for students at her daughter's elementary school, Wilshire Crest. "We all were very disappointed and very upset."

RELATED: Wilshire Crest among 20 schools that lost art teachers during winter break

The district has been making other changes to its elementary arts classes. Some schools lost or gained arts instruction at the end of the first semester as a result of enrollment changes, a move district officials have said will happen again in the future to ensure equity among students. Some teachers said they were surprised and got very little notice. Wilshire Crest was one of those.

Fourth grader Heidi Flores, Shaff's daughter, was in tears after having to give the district back her violin.

"I'm really excited and happy that they're giving us another chance to get music," Heidi said.

Another school that lost orchestra access mid-year was Laurel elementary in West Hollywood. (LIST: Check to see if your school lost arts instruction mid-year

Orchestra teacher Diane Lang, who taught orchestra at Laurel and has been with L.A. Unified since 2001, said she struggles to understand why the district ended the music instruction there so abruptly.

"It just still kind of takes away my breath that they would do such a thing," she said. Lang said she'd heard from district leaders that the orchestra program is expected to return as a year-long program in the fall. 

"It just has to be one year. In one semester, you just can't get that much done," she said, adding that the experience has opened her eyes to arts inequity. "I'm really becoming so aware that not all the schools get the same opportunities." 

Lottery may determine fate of elementary orchestra access

But some changes are still coming. L.A. Unified will use a lottery system to decide which elementary schools will get orchestra instruction next year, according to a memo by Steven McCarthy, the district's K-12 arts coordinator, obtained by KPCC.

"We currently have staff and instruments to cover 160 programs.  If more than 160 schools request services, we will need to resort to a lottery system to allocate instrumental music programs," the memo reads. The memo was sent March 25 and addressed to instrumental music teachers.

A district spokesperson said the lottery plan is not definite — final decisions will be part of 2014-15 school year budget discussions. 

She said McCarthy was not available for comment.

A lottery could mean schools that currently have orchestra programs — and have purchased music stands and teaching materials to support the instruction — might be left without an orchestra teacher next year. 

Parent concerned about accountability

Karen Wolfe, a parent of two children in the district, was thrilled officials won't be cutting orchestra instruction in half.

"It's not a one semester course," she said. "A lot of people were very worried when the programs were cut." 

Wolfe has been advocating for more comprehensive arts education in the district and described the experience as frustrating.

She attends school board meetings and said she and other parents were thrilled when the district made the arts a core subject after a unanimous school board vote in October 2012.

But she says she isn't seeing follow through and that has left her discouraged and eager for accountability from school officials.

"You feel really powerless," she said. "I'm really concerned about the direction that arts might be headed in the school district."