Jardine: Understanding the value of music, arts in schools

Anywhere else, it might seem a bit odd to the casual observer:

Students running their digits up and down the imaginary neck of an equally imaginary violin as they try to solve math problems.

At Paradise Elementary School, though, music and math go hand in hand.

"Playing the violin helps me in math because I have to use my fingers," Paradise sixth-grader Reyna Flores contends. "So when I'm doing math, I pretend I'm playing the violin, and it helps me because I'm using my fingers."

Doug Fraser, superintendent and principal of the 178-student district, last year introduced graphic arts classes and reinstituted a music program missing for nearly two decades from the 140-year-old school. This year, the district added violin and guitar lessons even as districts throughout the state are bracing for massive budget cuts.

The value of music and the arts is unquestioned, Fraser said.

"I come from the background of being a progressive educator," said Fraser, who worked in the Modesto City Schools system before taking over at Paradise three years ago. "What we had at Enslen and Lakewood (elementary schools), we can duplicate out here."

Children who hone their skills in music and art generally have higher grades, test scores and IQs, many studies have shown.

Even as Modesto City Schools prepares to cut $25 million or more from its 2010-11 budget, Superintendent Arturo Flores is on record as saying that music, arts and sports programs are for the most part safe from the scalpel.

The key, as Paradise and other districts realized, is not to rely on their general funds to pay for their programs, thus insulating them as much as possible from potential cutbacks.

The Stanislaus Union School District's nonprofit education foundation helps support a music program. It's administered by a Palm Springs company that hires California State University, Stanislaus, music students to teach in the after-school program. About one-third of the foundation's $15,000 annual budget supports visual and performing arts, said Susi Leslie, the district's curriculum director. Parents kick in about $45 per student each month for the lessons, including band, strings and color guard.

The Salida Performing Arts Foundation, a nonprofit that supports Salida school music and arts programs, raised more than $40,000 when concert pianist and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice played -- for free -- at a $500-a-head benefit in March.

The Paradise program is unique because it is a startup in the worst of financial times.

Last year, Fraser used money earmarked for arts and enrichment programs, along with some lottery money, to hire Jim Long to teach graphic arts and Ginny Burroughs, a voice major in college, to create a choir.

"She took kids with zero experience to a pretty competent program," Fraser said.

They went into the attic to look for the old music stands, but they were gone. So they had to buy stands.

This year, the school contracted with retired Modesto City Schools music instructor Dave Poteet to start a strings program and James Baucum to teach guitar.

All 178 kids get training in graphic arts and chorus. Baucum has 26 students learning guitar and Poteet has 25 in his strings program. Each teaches two days a week.

They cut a deal with C.K. Gottschalk, owner of Gottschalk Music Center in downtown Modesto, to rent instruments. The school's parents club kicked in $1,300 to pay the teachers, and parents contributed more than $1,000. One parent club member, Carlyn Wise, secured an $800 grant from Foresters, a fraternal financial products and services organization of which she is a member.

Also, parents pay $50 a year for participation and rent the instruments for $10 a month. The charges are enough to cover the costs for students who otherwise couldn't afford to pay, he said.

The program is in only its second year, but Fraser said the carryover into the classrooms already is apparent. Students must maintain at least a 2.5 grade-point average to participate.

"From what I've seen and heard from fourth- through eighth-grade teachers, grades have improved in language arts and math," he said.

"They're learning math in chorus, learning about eighth notes and quarter notes," Fraser said. "We're not talking about them all being GATE (Gifted And Talented Education)-level kids. We're talking about kids who have made the commitment. They're getting math in two venues."

Guitar student and sixth-grader Cherokee De Lisle said the benefits of the music program can be seen in her language arts class. "It helps me when we have to write stories to be more creative," she said.

And for violinists such as Reyna Flores, Callie Nunes and Melissa Pulido, every note counts.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or