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Desire for music lessons inspires billboard

| Monday, March 19, 2012

Cartwheels in a rest stop parking lot were not beyond Patty Kearns.

The Penn-Trafford elementary music teacher was bursting with pride on the return leg of a weekend trip to learn that the face of one of her students would tower above a Hempfield highway this spring.

"The kids here are all excited; they keep asking him for his autograph," Kearns said.

Sunrise Estates Elementary fourth-grader Joey Basista is the smiling face of a music education advocacy push in the Greensburg area by the Westmoreland County Music Educators Association. His contest-winning slogan, "Music is Medicine for the Mind," is emblazoned on a billboard on Route 119 between South Greensburg and Youngwood.

"I'm excited to be on it," said Joey, the son of Renee Basista. He was presented a banner replica of the billboard art last week during a school assembly.

The billboard is set to be relocated to Delmont in the next few weeks.

While recuperating at home from an illness, Joey brainstormed the medicine-related mantra to win a countywide slogan contest held by the association. The billboard isn't a response to cuts, but simply a reminder for public support, said Denise Bilott, music teacher in Norwin Middle School and an association member.

"We thought it would be better to have the message from one of our students rather than us as the teachers," Bilott said.

Money set aside by the association for advocacy paid for printing. Olympus donated the space, and Windsong Photography contributed its services. The association hopes to have the image displayed on other boards throughout the county.

From bottom up

It's a unique approach to advocacy, one Sue Rarus said she hadn't heard of. As advocacy team member with the National Association for Music Education, Rarus called the billboard a "terrific" way to engage the public.

Pockets of music programs across the country have shrunken or no longer exist as district administrators make do with less government money, Rarus said.

"Even if a community is very strong in its support of music and the arts, things can still go badly," she said.

Scott Sheehan, president of the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association, said other districts in the state have used billboards for advocacy, but never as a result of a student contest.

"The best advocacy is at the local level," said Sheehan, band director and music department chairman at Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School in Blair County. "I definitely think that your billboard in your area should produce a positive result."

After a 10 percent cut in public education funding last year, more than 40 percent of state districts reduced the number of electives such as music this school year, according to a survey conducted by Pennsylvania associations of school administrators and business officials.

Sheehan called music education "collateral damage" of legislative cuts.

"It's not that policymakers are targeting music and the other arts as wasteful ... or music as a bad thing," he said. "What happens is there's only so many dollars to go around."

Singing the praises

The advocacy message hits home for local music teachers. Standardized tests don't measure music achievement, but Fred Collins emphasized the importance of learning through song.

"Music opens pathways in the brain like no other subject," said Collins, band director at Mt. Pleasant Area High School.

Music education reaches beyond creativity and touches on personal development, said Joette Salandro, chairwoman of visual and performing arts at Greensburg Central Catholic.

"For some students, music is their one chance to shine in a day that's filled with subjects that sometimes overwhelm them," Salandro said. "Singing the solo at the spring concert may be the only time a particular student receives accolades all year long."

Kearns cited increased test scores and better attendance as benefits of music education. In her class, Joey Basista and his classmates compose music, play instruments, sing and dance.

"I try to instill that love of music in my kids," Kearns said. "If they can have success in the music classroom, it gives them the confidence to persevere through the difficult times in their lives."

Yet the arts typically are on the chopping block.

"Everyone thinks that the arts are the icing on the cake instead of part of the cake," Kearns said.

"I think people forget the importance of music in their lives," she said. "If we don't have music, then what do we have?"

Additional Information:

Cuts in music programs across the country

-- Students at Las Vegas Academy of International Studies, Performing and Visual Arts recently won a few thousand dollars in a contest to help its underfunded music department.

-- Music was eliminated from York City School District's curriculum this school year.

-- In response to public outcry, Washington state's Kent School District board decided to keep its elementary music program intact for the 2011-12 school year.

Source: The Associated Press, Las Vegas Sun and Kent Report

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