ISD 191 Expands Strings Program to Rahn Elementary

Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District is going ahead with an expansion of the strings program, though some have raised concerns about whether the program is financially viable over the long term.

If all goes according to plan, next fall students at Rahn Elementary in Eagan will be able to enroll in a strings program—the school's first.

The Board of Education approved the new program in February as a part of the new budget for Fiscal Year 2014, which includes a $260,000 increase in personnel for education outside the three Rs—instructors who teach classes in physical education, health, art, and music.

The news music to Rahn Principal Elaine Mehdizadeh's ears. Currently, the district only offers strings at two schools: Eagle Ridge Junior High and Harriet Bishop Elementary, the gifted and talented magnet school. Mehdizadeh said a string program for Rahn was discussed prior to the school's conversion from a traditional elementary to an arts and technology magnet school in the fall of 2011, but never quite got off the ground—until now.

Goodbye Budget Blues?

The decision was all the more surprising given the fact that the existing program was recently shortlisted for possible cutbacks in fiscal year 2015. During the budget process district staff questioned the program's viability and the wisdom of providing it only at select schools, not as a districtwide program. The status quo created inequality between the schools, they argued, therefore should possibly be eliminated.

Instead of cutting all existing programs on the west side of the district, the board opted to plant a strings program in the east at Rahn.

The Board's decision came as a bit of a surprise to the school itself, Mehdizadeh said. The plan is so new at this point that many key questions still hang in the balance.

For instance, it is not yet known how the new resources will be spent. Right now, the district spends about 75 percent of the resources devoted to strings at Harriet Bishop. These resources are described in terms of "full time equivalent" (FTE) positions. Harriet Bishop has 1.0 FTE, the equivalent of a full time instructor (though it is in fact split between two teachers). Eagle Ridge has a .4 FTE, or part-time, instructor. 

For the upcoming fiscal year, the board approved 2.0 FTEs for the district strings program, which would allow the district to hire or reallocate a strings instructor to Rahn. According to district Finance Director Lisa Rider, the addition of a .6 FTE will cost $49,200. The entire cost for all three schools would be $164,000. 

The three schools still have not yet decided exactly how these resources will be shared.

"I think what we're going to do as far as staffing is split the two positions among three schools, but I'll need a certain amount to get started," Mehdizadeh said. "We're not sure what that will look like."

No money for instruments—yet

The money alloted by the Board includes only the staffing costs, not the amount needed for instruments, music and the implements of orchestral music-making. 

"We would like to have some string instruments available for kids who couldn't go out and buy them. That could be significant," Mehdizadeh said. 

Such was the conundrum at Harriet Bishop when the school first started its program over the 2009-2010 school year. Harriet Bishop got an $80,000 grant to fund the initial purchase of their instruments. Harriet Bishop Principal Rob Nelson said having instruments available was key to the program's initial success, if only because parents would be justifiably wary of buying an quarter-size violin for a child who may drop out after a single year. Three years on the strings program at Harriet Bishop has grown from 50 kids to 200, about 30 percent of the school population.

Mehdizadeh said the principals of the three schools involved would evaluate current inventory to see if some of the violins, cellos and violas can be redirected to Rahn. If not, they may seek additional funds from grants or from sources closer to home. 

"One thing we've talked about is getting a booster program started to suport strings across the district," Mehdizadeh said. "We want to make sure that the families are involved, they have a voice and that the program is recognized as one that is well supported in our community. In order to make it work you have to have a strong support system." 

Boosters would also help the program survive the vicissitudes of the budgeting process, and would be an important safety net though at least half of th sitting board has voiced continuing support for strings.

The program's fate depends in part on how the students respond, said Board Members Dan Luth and Jim Schmid.

"Certainly while we expect a high level of interest, we will monitor this like other programs and make adjustments as necessary," Schmid said when asked about the program's long-term prospects. "My personal position is I am very excited that we are able to continue to offer, and in this case expand our multitude of extra and co-curricular opportunities for our students."

Board Chair Snady Sweep added that major changes to school boundary lines and school choice policies could affect the program. 

"In looking at boundary changes and a possible cluster system, the board will assess the sustainability and equity of all programs in all schools, Sweep said. "For myself, I am all for offering programs from all disciplines that expand and enhance the educational experience of our students."

Mehdizadeh said the school hopes to have an operationl strings program by fall. Once the program starts up at Rahn, they will most likely start kids in second grade or up. 

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