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Fighting poverty’s effects --- with music


You've heard them a thousand times, the little taglines that have followed conversations about Rochester for years. Rochester "has a lot of old money." Rochester "is a white-collar town." Rochester "is an arts and culture city."

Here are a couple of more recent ones: Rochester's children are the 11th poorest in the country and the poorest in New YorkState.

That child-poverty rate is the impetus behind the Rochester Education Foundation's current campaign, "Spring for Music," designed to get musical instruments into the hands of more Rochester students.

The CitySchool District doesn't have enough instruments to offer lessons to every student who wants them. And some of what it has is old: Two instruments originally donated by George Eastman are still in use. So the foundation --- an independent, non-partisan group formed to support community partnerships and raise resources for city students --- is seeking donations of instruments and cash.

It's the first project of this size for the two-year-old organization. "This is a problem we all need to address," says REF's executive director, Patricia Braus. "Our goal is to bring the resources of this entire area together to help city school kids."

"Almost anyone can have some level of musical achievement," says Braus, "but first, they need an instrument."

The case for music in the schools is a strong one; studies have shown a correlation between students who study music and those with high grades. EastHigh School music teacher Priscilla Brown is convinced of music's importance, even without the research. "Whenever honor roll is announced," she says, "I can go right down the list and pick out my band students. They are learning to read and interpret another language, and it requires total engagement."

General music education is offered for all students in the Rochester school district, beginning in kindergarten, and band is available for students beginning in 4th grade, for students who want to participate --- when instruments are available. But there are only 4,000 instruments for the district's population of about 34,000 students. School 8, for example, has only 15 instruments for 594 students.

"We're not even close to meeting the need," says the district's arts director, Debbie Harloff. "We never throw out an instrument, and we never have one just sitting around unused."

The district rents the instruments to students on a sliding scale; the poorest students pay $10 a year. And those students, says Harloff, are the majority. Few city parents are in a position to help pay for instruments, and that still leaves maintenance, sheet music, music stands, and other items that students need.

Play that next to the situation in the Brighton school district. In addition to general music education, Brighton offers a variety of musical activities after school. And, says Leslee Maybee, Brighton's visual and performing arts director: "Our program is open to anyone who wants to play, and no student is denied access to an instrument."

"Parents and the schools provide students with instruments," she says. "We have enough for a student body that's close to 3600."

In the city, as in Brighton, some parents are able to afford to buy instruments for their children. Others are not. And their children are often the ones most at risk for truancy and dropping out of school: the children who may benefit most from music lessons.

REF co-founder Ellen Leopold says it angers her when people debate the Rochester district's need for more money. "Children who come to school hungry or tired or in pain due to lack of dental care are going to have more problems learning than children who come to school without those problems," she says. "The fact is, it does take more money to educate children who come from poor backgrounds."

And that was the tipping point for getting REF off the ground. "When Rochester's children were ranked the 11th poorest in the nation, I was shocked," says Leopold. "I thought there would be more said about it. When nothing happened, I just couldn't believe it. That's when I thought, we need to do something,"

REF's goal for Spring for Music is to get donations of at least 250 instruments and to raise enough money to get them cleaned and repaired. "We think that this entire community will respond more if we provide them with better information," she says. This is not just about getting instruments for a bunch of kids. And it's not just their future. It's ours, too. It's the future of this community."

REF is not a new concept. In fact, Rochester is late in the game. The Brighton and Rush-Henrietta school districts each have their own foundations, and similar organizations have been created across the country. Their goal is to be advocates by raising money and pooling resources to help students and faculty. But there's a substantial difference in the way urban and suburban foundations can attract support.

Suburban schools not only operate in more affluent communities, but they also often have the luxury of being able to rely on parents and grandparents who are alumni of that district themselves. Most urban schools, on the other hand, operate in poorer neighborhoods. And students' families move frequently.

REF hopes to fill in the gap. Says Leopold: "We see ourselves as being a bit like the RUMP Group and the advocacy role they play for business. We see a need for supporting these kids and leveling the playing field. They simply do not have the same advantages, through no fault of their own. And the question is: Are we going to do something about it?"

REF is already planning its next venture: a community-wide focus to jump-start literacy skills in the K-2 years.

People interested in donating instruments to the Spring for Music campaign may drop them off at city libraries and the George Eastman House. A full list of drop-off sites can be found at Financial donations can be sent to the Rochester Education Foundation, Spring for Music, 500 East Avenue, Rochester14607.