City schools orchestra plays as budget cuts loom

The All-City High School Orchestra, directed by Bill Scheible, performs for possibly the last time at district headquarters.
The All-City High School Orchestra, directed by Bill Scheible, performs for possibly the last time at district headquarters. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 26, 2013

Pleas from students and teachers to restore funding for music in Philadelphia public schools almost eclipsed what might have been the All-City High School Orchestra's last performance Monday.

As musicians sat behind hand-drawn posters with such phrases as "Music is instrumental to education," the ensemble's concert at School District headquarters, 440 N. Broad St., was not art simply for art's sake. This was a performance with a purpose.

Facing a $304 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year beginning Monday, the district cut athletics and significantly slashed art and music programs. About 3,900 employees are to be laid off Sunday, including more than 60 music teachers, district spokesman Fernando Gallard said.

The itinerant music program, which sends specialized instructors to work with orchestras and instrumental subgroups at multiple schools, would be cut if those teachers are let go.

The All-City High School Orchestra has been around for more than 70 years. Monday's concert featured members of the orchestra along with teachers from the itinerant program, alumni, and members of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Without the itinerant music program, instructors say, the All-City orchestra is doomed.

"We are the only instrumental music instruction in over 90 percent of the schools," said Marjorie Keefe, who teaches strings at seven schools. "It's a way for economically disadvantaged students to have this opportunity that they otherwise would not have. . . . For many, it becomes just a lifesaving connection to the school, to education, to a hope for college and a career."

School officials are asking for $60 million in funding from the city, $120 million from the state, and $133 million from labor concessions to counteract the "doomsday" budget.

"It is my intent that when we open schools in the fall, we will have art, we will have music, and we will have children who will be able to be educated by committed educators like yourselves," Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said at the concert.

While lawmakers and educators struggle to find funding, students are trying to imagine what school would be like without music.

Some have the luxury of affording private lessons. Most of the more than 10,000 music students cannot afford to buy their own instruments; they use the battered school ones.

Though some hope to create ensembles with friends, that's not enough for everyone.

"I kind of need music to hold on," said violist Atamanu Hagins, a 16-year-old junior at Julia R. Masterman School. "Music is what keeps me together."


>Inquirer.com

Hear a selection from the Philadelphia All-City High School Orchestra's year-ending performance at www.inquirer.com/schoolconcert


Contact Summer Ballentine at 215-854-2000 or SBallentine@philly.com. Follow her on Twitter @esballentine.

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