Hoping to Turn The Beat Around

Guitars for students at Mertz Middle School in Manassas are named for famous musicians. At right, Christian Bull follows along during a lesson. Jessica Dodson, also in the class, used to play the flute.
Guitars for students at Mertz Middle School in Manassas are named for famous musicians. At right, Christian Bull follows along during a lesson. Jessica Dodson, also in the class, used to play the flute. "This is more fun," she said. "We play songs I know." (Photo: Kevin Clark/Post)
By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 17, 2007

Seventh-grader Jessica Dodson walked into class and yanked Eric Clapton from the wall -- the guitar, not the guitarist. Classmate Corey Cook already had Carlos Santana cradled in his lap, plucking out E-minor, C and G chords.

"On the C chord, I'm hearing some funky sounds," teacher Darlene Dawson said after her 17 students at Metz Middle School in Manassas played "Eleanor Rigby" in unison. She played along with the students, having taken up the guitar just a few months ago.

This isn't the kind of music class Dawson, a teacher for 25 years, is used to teaching. Or the kind students are accustomed to attending. Or what most students in U.S. schools are offered.

The elective class at Metz -- with guitars named after guitarists -- is being given as music education programs across the country are facing difficult times. Despite research showing that students who study music have better attendance, achievement and lifetime earnings, music classes are struggling to survive.

Supporters of such classes place some of the blame on the federal No Child Left Behind law. They say the focus on high-stakes testing leaves little room for other subjects.

"There are things you need for a healthy society," said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "Music is one of them," he said. But the No Child environment "sucks the juice out of everything else."

Music and the arts are listed in No Child Left Behind guidelines as "core" subjects, but there is no money in the law to support such programs nor any mandate requiring schools to provide them. As instructional time in math, language arts and other subjects students must achieve proficiency in has risen, time devoted to other subjects has declined. Time spent on arts and music in 2007 is about half what it was before No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, according to a report recently released by the nonprofit Center on Education Policy.

Educators are lobbying legislators to raise the profile of music education when No Child Left Behind is reauthorized, action that had been expected this year but has been delayed until next year. They are pushing for more money for arts programs and seeking a requirement that school systems report to the federal government on the status of their music education programs.

The federal law was one reason Dawson said she wasn't sure whether the guitar program at Metz would ever happen. Some see electives as expendable, she said, and "there is so much emphasis in Virginia on test scores." But administrators at the school were very supportive.

Manassas school leaders see music as critical to developing a well-rounded student, said Michaelene Meyer, deputy superintendent of the small district of nine schools in Virginia. Teachers are encouraged to experiment rather than stick with a rigid curriculum. Even administrators participate; Haydon Elementary School Principal Rebecca Stone is singing in the school's choral concert tonight.

It was Manassas's commitment to music that helped it join the top 100 school districts for music education in the country for 2007, according to an online survey by several music organizations, including the National Association for Music Education. No other Washington area school system was cited.

Administrators responded positively several years ago to Stacey Rubach, a music education teacher at Haydon, who became enamored with the guitar and began holding voluntary classes in school. The students loved it, she said, and Metz teachers wanted to try it, too.

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