[Education Issue]

Against all odds, Clark County continues to fight to keep music education alive

Music to our ears: Clark County’s music program has thrived thanks to hard work and support.
Photo: Mona Shield Payne

It’s hard to believe that Clark County is again named one of the “Best Communities for Music Education” by the nonprofit National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation.

It’s even harder to believe that our school district—overcrowded, under-funded, highly transitional and located in an area that measures poorly in high culture and intellect—has landed Clark County on the list eight times.

How did we do it? Effort, mainly.

Results are determined among districts—500 participated this year—that complete a volunteer survey, meaning that we weren’t sought. We solicited.

But we still made the cut. Recipients of NAMM’s designation are districts that work to keep the music programs alive—they score high in music funding, graduation requirements, music class participation, instruction time, facilities and support.

Nearly every elementary student—about 200,000—gets music education from a certified teacher, according to Rick McEnaney, coordinator of the school district’s secondary fine arts program. About 70,000 students take performance-based music as an elective. The mariachi program alone has 7,000 students participating in 14 schools. In addition, nearly 10,000 students in the district take non-performance electives—music appreciation or music therapy. “Math Through Mariachi” was piloted in the district last year and continues this year.

Additionally, an intensive kindergarten Suzuki program formed by Hal Weller, founding conductor of the Las Vegas Philharmonic, and Arturo Ochoa, former high school principal, puts violins and music training in the hands of inner-city students as a way to give them a head start in education and, hopefully, keep them in school.

Much of the focus is paying off. The district’s mariachi program is nationally recognized, touted and reported on for its ability to successfully engage at-risk students. The Las Vegas Academy this year received its 9th Grammy Signature School Gold Award for exceptional high school music programs; Green Valley High School has also received the designation in recent years. In addition, the school district’s choirs, bands and orchestras perform nationally and internationally at education and music conferences. Last year the school district was represented at every major conference, says McEnaney.

Moreover, its elementary music curriculum is bought and used in school districts nationwide. And the district has received a grant from VH1’s Save the Music Foundation for its “distinguished support of music education” for a guitar program that reaches more than 30 schools.

Officials with the district say it’s difficult to pinpoint how much funding is spent on music programs because of the different ways music filters into academic programs. Each school determines how much money will be spent on music education. One high school might have as many as seven or eight music teachers on faculty and another school might have two music educators, McEnaney says.

“Schools are really the reflections of the community and the principal,” he adds.

Part of the district’s music thrust is attributed to partnerships and to Marcia Neel, the former supervisor for the Secondary Music Education Program, who tirelessly advocated the role of music in academic achievement and a well-rounded education.

Ongoing reports, including a recent study by the Dana Foundation, indicate strong correlations between quality music education and academic achievement. That the school district has a nearly 50 percent dropout rate shows music alone can’t change that, and there’s no concrete way to know if it’s relevant. McEnaney says no such studies have been conducted within the district. Nor has there been research on music and arts programs’ connection to the dropout rate: “All of it is anecdotal. We don’t have any real hard data. But it’s highly unusual for students in fine arts program to not graduate.”

Success, he says, is measured by the number of participating music students and the number of schools selected for national and international competitions and events.

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