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Pittsburgh Public Schools budget cuts threaten private lessons at CAPA

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Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011

Pittsburgh Public Schools wants to cut private instrumental lessons and make other changes to save up to $600,000 a year at its award-winning arts magnet high school that has produced Grammy performers, Broadway artists and Hollywood actors.

Administrators proposed eliminating the lessons of students enrolled in the Creative and Performing Arts' vocal and instrumental music programs beginning next fall. The district would lay off an undetermined number of adjunct instructors who teach the lessons.

"Without them, we wouldn't progress as much," said Noah McDonald, 14, of Lawrenceville, a freshman who wants to make a career of playing the trombone and tuba. "It's a lesson a week; that would be expensive (for me) to pay for."

The district would replace private lessons during the school day with more group instruction, said Jerri Lippert, chief academic officer.

"Students at CAPA spend half their day immersed in their art form," Lippert said. "That's way more than any other district that CAPA competes with, so we still feel even though they might not have their private lesson, the teachers can still support a child individually."

Christine Jordanoff, a professor of music education and director of choral organizations at Duquesne University, thinks eliminating private lessons could hinder students' chances for higher music education.

"You don't become competent on an instrument or with your voice without private lessons," Jordanoff said. "If a student is going to graduate from CAPA and has aspirations to become a music major in college, but has had no private lessons, most schools are not going to look at them."

The proposal is part of a districtwide plan to cut programs and increase class sizes to help close a projected $38 million deficit in 2012.

CAPA is a magnet school in Downtown's Cultural District that offers instrumental and vocal music, dance, literary arts, theater and visual arts programs. Students must audition to be accepted.

First lady Michelle Obama visited during the G-20 Summit in 2009 and later invited an 11th-grade percussion student to the White House to perform as part of her Music Series.

About 890 students attend CAPA, a 2009 National Blue Ribbon School. About 200 students are enrolled in the instrumental music program, and 160 are in the vocal music program.

The district wants to incorporate the study of costume at CAPA into the visual arts program and increase the number of classes that four arts program coordinators teach from one to three daily.

The board must consider the changes when it passes a 2012 budget. By law, that must occur by Dec. 31.

Lippert said cutting programs at CAPA would be a tough decision, but the district's financial problems dictate change.

"We wouldn't be doing it if we didn't have to," she said. "If we were going to maintain CAPA in its current form, what more do people suggest we take away from other kids?"

The district spends $7.7 million to run CAPA, about $2.1 million of which pays 68 adjunct teachers for all arts areas.

There are 19 adjuncts in the instrumental music program and nine in the vocal program. Many teach group classes. Adjuncts are not considered full-time district employees, though they are part of the teachers union.

CAPA junior Carly Caporali, 16, of Sheraden, a vocal major, said she wouldn't mind not taking private lessons.

"Even though it's nice to do a solo piece, I'd rather do more group work," she said. "But at the same time, you're going as a solo artist to college. It's not a win-win."

Alaine Fink, an adjunct piano teacher at CAPA for nearly 11 years, said she understands the budget problems but worries that families won't be able to afford to pay for lessons.

"We are an urban school district providing a service for talented children who might not be able to get that type of individual instruction," she said.

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