High school district music changes strike a sour note


By Marsha Sutton

Sudden changes to the San Dieguito Union High School District music program have caused confusion and consternation among many students, parents and music supporters, some of whom are alarmed that the new regulations will harm the award-winning program.

To meet the district’s requirement for two years of physical education in both middle school and high school, many music students opted to take Independent Study Physical Education after school, which allowed them to take foreign language and music as their two electives.

Music students can still sign up for ISPE as an “extra” class, but the way ISPE will be administered is changing.

In the past, music teachers received a log from students periodically, which showed that kids exercised a certain number of hours each week, said Rick Schmitt, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of educational services.

Parents signed off on their children’s physical activity program, which often consisted of walking, jogging, surfing or other unsupervised activity. Music teachers accepted the parental verifications.

Schmitt said this is not legitimate, noting that a parent can’t supervise an internship or sign off on English or math for example. He said the same rules apply to PE, and the ISPE statute is clear.

“Music teachers can’t be giving credit for PE,” he said. “You must have it supervised by a professional, and they must have a million-dollar liability.”

Schmitt said other school districts have been sued after students were injured during ISPE under the supervision of non-professionals. The district is legally vulnerable, he said, because schools give credit for ISPE.

“We’re not going to allow any more unsupervised kids doing this because we’re liable, so we’re moving it to a supervised program,” he said.

So, beginning this fall, incoming seventh-grade students at the district’s four middle schools and all Canyon Crest Academy and San Dieguito Academy high school students can no longer have parents and music teachers sign off on ISPE. Music students can still sign up for ISPE, as an additional class, but it must be with a licensed professional who carries liability insurance.

The ISPE policy change will not affect this fall’s eighth-graders and students at Torrey Pines High School and La Costa Canyon High School until the 2013-2014 school year.

Licensed professionals can include insured professional coaches, but Schmitt said ISPE students don’t have to be athletes. Participation in any community organization such as the YMCA or Boys & Girls Club, which offers scholarships, is also acceptable.

“The only thing that’s different is we’re not allowing music teachers to sign off on PE,” he said.

The application period for ISPE opened on April 6 and closes Aug. 17. The goal, a district letter states, is for all students to take regular PE, but the district recognizes that Independent Study PE might be more appropriate for several categories of students: exceptionally gifted athletes, students wanting to take an advanced course not offered by the district, students with an impacted schedule, those with medical conditions, and those who have already fulfilled their PE requirement.

Music students, Schmitt said, are considered to have impacted schedules.

A district website with a six-minute video tutorial guides students through the ISPE registration process [].

One flick of a pen

Schmitt said he and his staff began developing the plan last fall and solidified it in Jan.

Many parents were surprised to hear about the new policy, learning of the change only after their children registered for 2012-2013 classes in March and April.

In mid-April, when alarm bells went off throughout the music community, the district held meetings with principals, counselors, staff members, music booster leaders and the public to explain the policy and provide clear instructions to help music students register – in some cases, re-register – for classes.

“We’ve spent the last month communicating the information,” Schmitt said.

Charlotte Goldstein, a Carmel Valley Middle School parent whose son will be attending Canyon Crest Academy this fall as a ninth-grader, said she understands the goal was not to destroy the music program but believes the change will nonetheless have a deleterious effect.

“The worst crime the district did was not communicating,” said Goldstein.

She said district staff did not understand nor explain the change adequately, causing many students to drop music and enroll in regular PE.

She also worried that many high-achieving students who take private music lessons and may also play in youth orchestras will no longer take music in school, because the new ISPE sign-up system is complex and they may be reluctant to add another structured after-school activity to an already over-burdened schedule.

This, she said, would lower the quality of the overall program and make it less fulfilling for younger students to join.

Libby Scott, one of the original members of a movement that brought music instruction back to San Dieguito schools in the late 1990s, also expressed concern.

“When I heard that SDUHSD had to make the changes for Band PE, my heart stopped,” Scott said in an email. “The entire community worked so hard all those years ago to bring music back to the schools and, with one flick of a pen and a miscommunication, [this] could totally undermine everything we did and bring it to a screeching halt.”

Scott praised Schmitt for saying that “all deadlines are in pencil for band kids and that no music student will be left behind.” She also agreed the new policy is needed “but just not on this timeline,” suggesting a one-year delay in implementing the new policy.

She also suggested an expedited, simplified ISPE sign-up process. “I don’t think it is fair that music students should have to spend such an inordinate amount of time and effort to sign up for a class that should be part of the curriculum,” she said.

Award-winning programs

Distressed over the lack of music in local schools, parent activists Patti Malmuth and Libby Scott met in 1996 with dozens of music supporters to form the Foundation to Advance Music Education. Three years later, FAME’s efforts paid off.

Today, the district’s music programs are considered some of the best in San Diego County, with over 1,400 SDUHSD music students and music teachers at every school.

“The breakthrough came when the San Dieguito Union High School District agreed to partner with the Boys & Girls Club to offer Independent Study PE credit to students wanting to take band/music,” Malmuth said in an email.

Scott said there is no room for music, PE and foreign language in students’ schedules. “In SDUHSD, most students feel compelled to take foreign language … to go to college,” she said. ISPE offered a way around the dilemma.

But music supporters say the new policies threaten the future of music in the district, primarily because the lack of adequate and timely information about the new ISPE option may have affected music students’ course selections.

“The changes to the registration process occurred so late in the game that no one knew what to do nor how to do it,” Scott said. “The paperwork was incorrect and did not mention the ISPE music option that was available.”

Students have already registered, with no way to contact them, she said. The district cannot mail a sign-up form to students, “as that would put them in a situation where they were ‘advertising’ an elective,” she said.

Another hurdle, Scott said, is that the new ISPE regulations will cost families money and demand a greater time commitment.

“The kids need to find a fully insured physical education program outside of the district … [and] find time for it in their busy schedules,” she said.

Lastly, she said the new procedure to sign up for ISPE is arduous, noting that after-school club sports cannot count for ISPE. “The paperwork needed to sign up for ISPE,” Scott said, “is so difficult that some parents and students might look at it and just decide it’s too much of a pain to do.”

Scott said the origins of Band PE came from marching band, which allowed music students to get physical exercise while learning and playing music.

Sharilyn Parr, parent of an incoming seventh-grader at Earl Warren Middle School, agreed, saying, “Somewhere along the way, the schools stopped marching band. In my view, this was the big mistake, especially in a school like Torrey Pines that has a big emphasis on sports.”

Marching band, Parr said, also gave non-athletic kids a way to participate in football games and other high school sporting events, and suggested the district “return a marching band program to the schools so kids can get their exercise and their music at the same time.”

Parr said she was not against the policy change because she believes the prior policy was wrong. “Children shouldn’t be able to get out of PE by doing band,” she said. But she did say the new policy “will really hurt the music program.”

Scott said the district is allowing an extra course per semester for music students and Schmitt gets “a gold star” for “going beyond the call of duty” to keep the program successful.

An ardent music advocate, she remains concerned about the risk to the music program, though, saying the ISPE policy change blind-sided everyone.

“Not only does music education provide all of the obvious benefits, but also provides students the manner in which to think creatively and communally,” Scott said. “It’s something like learning a foreign language and performing – a living art form – all together. There is absolutely nothing like it.”