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Group hopes to save Laporte music program

Laporte alumni Sandra Pierce, left, and Jessica Howg flank Louise Bass, who has taught music at Laporte School for 26 years. Sales of T-shirts supporting the school’s music program, online petitions and a petition circulating at the school were some of the ways residents and friends of the district are showing support for Bass.1 / 2
Laporte resident Jessica Howg, left, a past student of Laporte music teacher Louise Bass, leads a April 18 meeting at the Lake Port Township fire hall to discuss the community’s response to a school board proposal to eliminate Bass’s position. Approximately 50 participants discussed the issue and set a follow-up meeting for 6 p.m. Thursday, April 26. (photos by Robin Fish/Enterprise)2 / 2

When a handful of supporters of K-12 music teacher Louise Bass and the Laporte School music program called, a crowd of more than 50 people answered.

Alumni, parents and other concerned members of the community gathered April 18 at the Lake Port Township fire hall to discuss a recent resolution by the Laporte School Board to eliminate Bass's position and replace it with a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program.

Organizers Sandra Pierce of Grand Rapids (Class of 2010) and Jessica Howg of Laporte (Class of 2000) offered guests refreshments and an opportunity to buy T-shirts saying, "Without music, school will B-flat." The shirts also referenced the Facebook group #keepmusicinlaporte.

An online petition, linked to the group's webpage, had 223 signatures as of Wednesday's meeting — twice the population of Laporte.

A separate petition circulating in the school lunchroom and on school buses already bore the names of 100 students in favor of keeping Bass and music education in Laporte.

The school board ended the high school choir and band program at the end of the 2016-17 school year. At its April 16 meeting, the school board took another step toward removing Bass, who is tenured, by approving a curriculum plan that would cut music as a full-time teaching position.

About the music

Howg, who has three students at the school, urged community members to keep the conversation positive. "We want the whole thing to be about music," she said. "I don't want it to be us against the school. Our community and our students want music, and that's what it has to be about."

Quoting from the school's mission statement, Howg said the board's decision fails "to establish a learning environment centered around students, promoted by all staff, and supported by home and community."

Howg said Bass has a right to a hearing, if she chooses to pursue one.

"If they do have a hearing and they side with Ms. Bass, then they have to reinstate her and we have a music program," said Howg. "If they side with the school board, then it goes to a second resolution," a special meeting at which the community could give input.

The reason given for the curriculum change was a decline in participation in music and an interest in STEM programming. Howg said the school's curriculum committee recommended hiring a part-time music and movement specialist for preschool and kindergarten, and having elementary teachers lead music lessons in their classrooms. This would leave "pretty much no music available to our high school students," she said.

Meantime, the school would hire a full-time STEM teacher and a full-time technology coordinator.

STEM vs. music?

"I don't think it's a bad program," Howg said regarding STEM, "but I don't think it is at all worthy of replacing music."

She questioned why the school did not consider STEAM, which includes the arts with STEM subjects.

Howg said a school board member told her the board is willing to meet with the community and hear what they have to say, if a time can be determined when all board members are available.

Meantime, the school board canceled a community meeting scheduled for April 19, and no school board members attended the April 18 meeting.

Howg said she asked school district staff to put her on the agenda for the school board's May 14 meeting.

She took issue with school administration's claim that interest in music was low. The reason for low enrollment in music classes, Howg said, is "hugely a scheduling problem. When our school switched over to the three trimesters and the five hours, it really cut the options that our kids could have for classes."

"They have to choose major electives over music," another participant agreed. "So, they're in a pinch."

Loss to the community

"We've had a music program in Laporte for 60 years," Howg said, specifying a full-time music teacher. "Ms. Bass has been there for 26 of those years. We haven't had our elementary teachers teaching music for that long. For us to go backwards and not have a music program, I think, would be detrimental to our kids."

Acknowledging that the school's elementary teachers are "amazing," Howg added, "They're not trained to teach music. If we want real music education in our school, it can't be done by just anyone. To say that these elementary teachers can do just as good a job as Ms. Bass, who has been teaching music for years and years, I think is sad."

Concerning the decision's impact on the community, Howg asked who would take the lead to organize concerts, talent shows, Christmas caroling, the community band, honor choir, honor band and band camp.

She said an Upward Bound coordinator told her their program cannot come to Laporte because the school doesn't offer enough liberal arts credits to make graduates college-ready.

Howg said, "I've heard from quite a few people whose kids come here through third grade, and then they're like, 'No, we're going to switch to Bemidji or Walker or Nevis,'" she said. "It's sad, because we lose a lot of really talented kids because we can't offer them what they need."

A special need

A meeting participant praised Laporte School's program to help students with special needs. She expressed concern about how eliminating Bass's position will affect special-needs children.

"That music program, that's where they thrive," Howg agreed. "They come to school every day because they get to sing, they get to dance, and they get to play."

Another woman gave a testimonial to the Laporte music program's role in her autistic grandson's growth. The school's elementary teachers "really lifted him up," she said. But it was in music class where "he could release his stresses and be who he was without intimidation and without fear. He grew in the music. It worked for him."

The boy went on to junior high and high school in Bemidji, where his teachers loved him. "He was confident," the grandmother said. "He put on his suit. He performed. He felt good about who he was. Music built him up tremendously."

Importance of music

Biochemistry teacher Kay Sanders of Laporte, a 1973 graduate of the school, said, "Without music, you can't do science. You can't critically think. You need the arts."

"There has to be balance," she said. "You can't just do tech because they cannot critically discern between what's real and what's not real. They cannot do creative thinking without the arts, without music."

Sanders cited studies showing that music is integral to kids' learning and helps them think. Just as important, she said, "Without music, life is boring."

"Not every kid is going to be a great musician," said Sanders. "It doesn't matter. The fact is, they learn and they try, and that might be the only opportunity some of these kids have to play an instrument or to sing in choir."

Howg said, "Yes, music isn't for everyone. I was in band and choir all the way through high school. Every time I'm in church, I open up that hymnbook when we're singing a new song, and I can read that music. Thank you, Ms. Bass!"

The whole point of public school, Sanders noted, was to provide an educational opportunity that families don't have to pay for. "Not every parent in the area can afford $50 an hour at the Headwaters School of Music for private lessons."

Sanders said she recently talked to a man who recently moved back to the area from out of state. He said he wasn't athletic or super-smart, but "music and drama and art were the only things that kept me in school."

"When you start getting rid of programs like music and art," said Sanders, "you're becoming a school that nobody wants to come to."

In her own words

"I think music programs bring out the creativity in students," Bass said during a break in the meeting for small-group discussion. "It allows them to experiment and be creative and learn how to be performers, stand up in front of audiences and not be afraid of being in front of people. Music brings communities together, as you see tonight."

Originally from South Dakota, Bass has taught for 34 years in all. Until the school eliminated choir and band this year, she was their director. Currently, Bass teaches music in preschool through eighth grade and music appreciation in grades 9-12.

"I am so proud of my school and so proud of what I do," said Bass. "Music is super-important. I've devoted my life and my career to music. I'm a performer myself. It's so important that kids have that opportunity."

A teacher speaks

At least one school staff member is not excited about the school board's decision.

"The school board has voted to end the music program at Laporte school, and I would like them to reinstate it," said Stephen Booth, a fourth-grade teacher at Laporte School who attended Wednesday's meeting. He graduated from the school and has taught there since 1993. His own children also participated in the school's music program.

"Music is really important to me and my kids," he said. "My son is in the Concordia Choir in Moorhead right now. My daughter learned to play piano from Louise. Both of our kids continue to play music. It's just an important part of their life. And they were first introduced to that at Laporte School."

As a teacher, Booth recalled how his excited students were to look forward to starting band in fifth grade.

"They'd watch the older kids with their instruments," said Booth. "I shared in that excitement. It was thrilling when they actually had them and were carrying them around. So, when I heard that band and choir were cut, that's the first thing I thought of."

Students take action

"When we first heard, we were really upset about it," said sixth-grader Wyatt Lahr. During free time in social studies class, he and some fellow students decided to take action by circulating a petition.

"Music is that one class of the day I can just go to and relax and have a little fun, because you can just get up in the middle of it and start dancing to the music," said Lahr with a laugh.

About Bass, he added, "She's a good teacher. She's influenced me to like music more than I thought I ever would."

Alex Eisenbarth, a fourth-grader at the school, said, "Kids love music. We need music. I want to learn how to play guitar, but I can't if we don't have music" at the school.

Ninth-grader Lacey Lahr agreed, "I love her. She's an amazing teacher. She can handle well over 200 students, and she can teach every single one of them and touch their lives."

She said music is important "because it opens up more opportunities for kids to decide what they want to be. I know it's helped me. It's made a huge impact on my life. It was one of the classes that made my day, that I wanted to go to every single day."

Moving ahead

Howg had meeting participants break into small groups to discuss their answers to a list of questions. She suggested that they take the worksheets home and bring their ideas to another community meeting about the Laporte school music program, tentatively scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, April 26 at the fire hall.

Contacted by the Enterprise April 19, Laporte School Superintendent Kim Goodwin declined to comment about the issue.