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Supporters of the arts say success stories found in Western Pa. schools

| Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013, 11:26 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Anita Drummond blows a whistle and plays the tambourine in the rain as she is joined in protest by the 'Marching Band of the Future' outside of the Pittsburgh Public Schools Administration Building in Oakland on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013. About two dozen parents turned out to show their dismay with the school budget cuts and the direction local schools are going.

Superintendent Linda Lane hinted at coming school closings when she talked to protesters carrying musical instruments on Wednesday who claim Pittsburgh Public Schools cut money for arts programs yet spent millions on out-of-state consultants.

“I don't see another way through it,” Lane told a small group at the district's administrative office in Oakland. “But even if the board were to agree to close schools, that still doesn't solve our (financial) problems.”

The rain-drenched protest preempted Lane's presentation of a $2.4 million Envisioning Process report scheduled for official review in November. Lane has said her plan would address the district's fiscal and performance-related challenges.

Financing the report never threatened general fund money or arts programming, Lane said. Grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Fund for Excellence paid for the document, delivered in part by FSG and Bellwether Education Partners.

Clusters of parents, residents and a few truant students danced in the rain, shouting and banging drums between impassioned speeches about defunded band programs at Westinghouse High School, among others.

Spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the district changed its policy in 2011 to require at least one period of both art and music in grades K-8 every week, but reduced its adjunct budget for private lessons in the 2012-13 school year at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School, furloughing several teachers who weren't rehired. The district decreased from 16 to four the number of music instructors teaching students in elementary and middle schools, she said.

As city school art budgets receive harsh scrutiny, regional advocates say many neighboring districts sustained and often increased commitments to music, drama, art and dance curricula.

Linda Croushore, executive director of the Consortium for Public Education in McKeesport, cited Ringgold, McKeesport and Yough Senior high schools as “shining examples.”

“We have kids that maybe can't display their talents in any other way than through the arts,” said Yough Principal Earl Thompson. “Funding the arts is absolutely essential. Music performance, painting, drawing, dance — these programs give kids we can't reach academically something to be great at, a reason to come to school.”

When a budget crunch gets tough, North Hills High School band and orchestra director Len Lavelle said district officials sit down together to find ways to cover any hurdles in arts programming.

“Even the Nobel Prize winner (Thomas) Sudhof said he couldn't have done it without his bassoon teacher,” Lavelle said, citing the German-American biochemist who won this month for work in medicine and physiology. “What great education exists without a strong commitment to the arts?”

At Mt. Lebanon School District, communications director Cissy Bowman called arts funding largely “non-negotiable.” Board members long ago took the stance, she said, that arts remain an integral part of education, from elementary to high school.

Arts programs need to be embedded into a school's atmosphere so they become a natural extension of math, science and literature, Croushore said.

“With the prospect of testing and the pressure that comes with that, protecting the arts can be tough. We know that,” she said. “But if you do it right, a good fine arts program will be the best dropout prevention program you'll ever have.”

Megan Harris is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or

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