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Plucky parents, kids aim to keep strings classes going

Group picks up pieces after cuts claim program that's been in place 30 years
by: Courtesy photo A dozen students from the Forest Grove School District strings program, which was eliminated this spring in budget cuts, are helping their parents fundraise to keep the classes going next fall.

When Mary Lyons came home from a meeting in May and told her son Collin that the orchestra program had been cut from next year's school budget in Forest Grove, the middle schooler sat silent for a moment or two.

When he finally snapped into action, it was to create a music video for the teacher who's most recently instructed him in the finer points of the violin.

'I've played violin since I was in the third grade,' said Collin, a student of Jonathan Cohen, who was laid off in teacher reductions this spring. 'When you first pick up an instrument, it's intimidating. But as you take more lessons, you gain more confidence.'

For Collin and nearly 300 other strings students in the local school district, elimination of their favorite program came as a shock. Yet the day after they, and their parents, heard the news about the cut - which saves the district $150,000 - they started brainstorming ways to rescue a trio of beloved orchestras.

By July 1, fundraisers need to have $4,000 in hand to finance a plan to keep strings classes going at Forest Grove's elementaries, upper elementary and middle school next year.

The effort got a boost Monday, when Superintendent Yvonne Curtis announced at a school board meeting that a donor had given $1,000 to the cause.

With only two weeks to meet their deadline - which gives district officials time to create contracts for planned positions - parents and students aim to make things work.

'We feel like it's an achievable goal that saves three orchestras,' said parent Brenda Mallett, an organizer of Friends of Forest Grove Strings.

The orchestra at Forest Grove High will continue to receive district funding and next fall will be led by teacher Leonard Ostwalt, she said.

Veteran Forest Grove strings teacher Kathy Walden has agreed to come out of retirement to offer orchestra instruction as part of Neil Armstrong Middle School's after-school program, Mallett said. Her salary would be partially funded by that program's grant, and the remainder would come from money the group raises.

At the fifth and sixth-grade level, Ann Cullen, who'll work part-time as an instructional assistant at Dilley Elementary next year, plans to run a before-school program for two orchestras of Tom McCall students if the fundraising group can cover the cost of her position for one hour a day.

Mallett's group, along with district communications director Connie Potter, are also working with Pacific University to provide third- and fourth-graders with strings instruction on the Forest Grove campus starting next fall.

To create an emergency plan to keep the program in place next year, Mallett and several other parents, including Stacey Fataua, Monica McMaster, Lis Monahan and Elena Parker, penned a solicitation letter to 'Friends of Music,' asking for donations. They'll pair whatever money comes from that effort with $6,500 raised at the district's annual strings auction in February, leaving them about $4,000 short of their goal.

If the gap funding doesn't come through, the letter indicates the group plans to ask students' families for 'pay-to-play' tuition monies in 2011-12.

Instead of lobbying the school district to save their program, parents and students took matters into their own hands, contacting Potter 'right away,' said parent Monica McMaster, whose daughter is involved in orchestra.

'The day after we heard about the proposed budget cuts a group of us got together to talk,' said McMaster. 'The strings program has been in the Forest Grove School District for so long - it's been a gem. To see it fade away is something we didn't want to see happen.'

Besides, she said, if the program disappeared, dozens of students would have to set their instruments aside for good.

'Private instruction is very expensive,' said McMaster, noting that renting a violin at a music store can run $30 or more a month. 'Without [this program], so many kids would never pick up a stringed instrument,' she said.