SOMSD Explains New Approach to Performing, Fine Arts

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In what could been seen as a retort to a highly circulated opinion piece last week questioning the district’s dedication to arts education, South Orange-Maplewood Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Susan Grierson sent an email to middle school parents yesterday explaining the new schedule and the “new approach” to performing arts and fine arts.

Grierson wrote that “over the past two years, we have worked to restructure the Middle School Schedule to achieve three goals.” Those goals are: providing additional time for struggling student to get support during the school day; providing teachers with common planning time with their grade level and department; and enhancing “our Related Arts Program to provide students with exciting elective options.”

Read Grierson’s full letter below.

According to Grierson, expanded elective offerings include World Drumming, Song Writing, Bandology and Spotlight on Strings, as well as Model United Nations, Lego Robotics, STEM: Creative Computing and Design, and MMS/SOMS Investigates!

In attachments to her letter, Grierson compared last year’s middle school arts elective schedule to this year’s new schedule.

While students in performing arts electives met daily last year, Grierson reported that it was only for 30 minutes. Now students meet every other day for 40 minutes allowing “for more sustained rehearsal.” In addition, ensembles are “divided into two groups so conductors are leading rehearsals of 30-40 rather than 60-80.”

Where students had to split their time between two performance art electives last year, Grierson wrote that they are now able to take two full performance art electives this year, that ensemble rehearsal time no longer competes with the advisory period or academic support, and that “the Addition of Bandology and Spotlight on Strings electives provide students with additional performance opportunities.”

Select Choir — which met once a week during advisory, lunch or after school last year — now “meets every other day throughout the year as full-fledged classes in 7th and 8th grade, for students who audition and qualify.”

Grierson also outlined changes in fine arts scheduling in the attachment (see below).

Grierson wrote that the new schedule would be carefully evaluated for its effectiveness to “determine if any adjustments could improve it even further for next year.”

Grierson, previously the Principal of Jefferson School, is in her first year as Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction.

In an opinion piece published on October 25, former SOMSD Director of Fine and Performing Arts Anthony Mazzocchi wrote that “the purest form of evidence of the value of the role of arts in education is how schools schedule the arts, and this is where our district has come up short.”

Mazzocchi continued, “One of the worst cuts to come down in our district since 4th grade instrumental was disposed of occurred this year in the middle schools. Before I arrived in district, students received less than 2 days a week of instrumental music plus weekly small group private lessons. Principals and I collaboratively and creatively arranged the schedule so that students received 5 days a week of instrumental music on top of lessons. This year, the time has been scaled back to 2 days a week, with lessons meeting every other week. Vicious cuts that clearly show us where our Principals place their values; on further valuing preparation for standardized testing, thus demoralizing teachers and students. Predictably, the arts suffered from collateral damage, curiously enough in a year where we have massive transitions in leadership.”

Read Mazzocchi’s full post here.

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