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Giving Kids Back the Sound of Music

Education: Amid budget cuts, Oxnard elementary district is reviving on a smaller scale a program that was axed 11 years ago.


Larry Boeing remembers it well. The budget was tight, they said, and music--which he had taught in Oxnard elementary schools for 23 years--was on the chopping block.

Administrators grumbled. Parents and students protested. But in the spring of 1991, school district leaders decided to ax the thriving program.

Now, more than a decade later, Oxnard school leaders have decided it's time for a music revival.

Boeing has been rehired to run a pilot program at five elementary schools, where he is teaching fifth- and sixth-graders to play any instrument they choose, from the violin to the tuba.

"Music helps kids academically and helps them to stay out of trouble," said Boeing, 61, whose energy for his craft is evident within minutes of meeting him. "Ten years' worth of kids didn't get that chance."

Oxnard's move comes, ironically, in the middle of another fiscal crunch that has forced education cuts throughout California.

In Oxnard, school board members slashed $2.3 million from the 2002-03 school year's $114-million budget, both by cutting costs and shifting funds from other sources.

But they added $100,000 annually to restore music.

"Over the years, we have always felt that the arts, and music in particular, is an important part of education, but unfortunately everything can't be a priority," said Richard Duarte, superintendent of the Oxnard Elementary School District. "At this point, we are attempting to recognize that the arts have a priority, and we're trying to open that door."

Because of the limited budget, only five schools are participating the first year.

To ensure fairness, officials divided the district into five equal areas and chose schools from each in a lottery system, said Martha Hernandez, who is coordinating the program. They are Brekke, Ramona, Sierra Linda, Marina West and Lemonwood.

"The idea was to start small and plant a seed that will hopefully grow into a full program over the next five years," she said.

In the meantime, Boeing--who has taught first grade at Harrington Elementary School since the music program ended in 1991--said Oxnard's new program will work a lot like the one that was in place 11 years ago, but on a much smaller scale.

He will move from school to school, teaching three to four classes at each, in strings, woodwinds, brass and advanced band. He also will help guide teachers at other grade levels in incorporating music, either via wind instruments called recorders or basic music appreciation, into their classrooms.

One of the biggest hurdles to the music classes, which began this week, will be obtaining instruments: The program doesn't have any.

Children will have to rent or buy their own until the program can amass donated instruments or raise money to buy instruments, Boeing said.

Boeing said he got his start in music as a fourth-grader, when he learned to play the clarinet in school. He never stopped loving music and still plays saxophone in a Ventura-based band that gives free concerts every year.

He also enjoys teaching, which he has done for 37 years. He said the rewards are in the positive effect on students--whether improved achievement in other subjects or just the look on a young flutist's face when she nails a high C without squeaking.

"It's fun to do and it's relaxing to play," Boeing said. "I want to help other people, especially kids, feel that too."

Elementary grades are a good place to start, he said. Not only do children pick up the playing of musical instruments easily at a young age, they tend to lose interest in trying by the time they get to junior high.

"At that age, the hormones have kicked in," Boeing said.

Fundi Legohn, director of the Oxnard High School band, said he has felt the effects of the elementary district's lack of a music program. Overall interest in band is down, he said, and those who do come in have only one to two years of experience from junior high.

Other Ventura County districts with programs for younger students have an automatic advantage, he said.

Though many school districts had to cut back or eliminate music programs in the early 1990s, several have since been able to reinstitute or expand them.

Hueneme, Ocean View, Pleasant Valley, Conejo Valley and Simi Valley school districts all offer instrumental music for children beginning in the fourth grade. Rio Elementary and Ventura Unified remain without.

Oxnard school board member Dorothie Sterling, who was on the board when the program was cut, said she will fight to see the program expanded.

Although she had some concerns about reintroducing the classes at the same time the district is implementing major budget cuts, Sterling said she is convinced it is the district's job to teach music.

"It is a core program--just like reading and math," Sterling said.

To donate an instrument to Oxnard's new music program, call Martha Hernandez at the school district at 487-3918.

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