controversy -- Administrators go looking for additional teaching time at Tom McCall Upper Elementary School and wonder whether band and orchestra activities are stealing too much of it

A hunt for more instructional time at Tom McCall Upper Elementary School has touched off a dissonant note with band and orchestra parents in Forest Grove.

Superintendent Jack Musser told the audience at Monday night's school board meeting that Tom McCall, which houses about 1,000 students in grades 5 and 6, 'absolutely' needs to come up with more instructional time for core classes like math, reading and science.

But he said he was not ready to make a decision to kick the popular strings and band classes out of the regular school day into a before- or after-school time frame during the 2007-08 school year.

'This conversation wasn't meant to center on band and orchestra,' Musser said. 'We're not going to drop any strings. We're not going to drop any band.'

A meeting last Thursday between district administrators, Tom McCall principals and music instructors about scheduling touched off a round of rumors among parents that the popular programs might be in jeopardy.

About 135 Tom McCall students are pulled out of core classes several times each week to participate in the programs.

'This is one of the jewels of the district,' said Heidi New, who has two children in the orchestra program.

Dot Boles, a parent and teacher, asked the board to 'observe some other successful pull-out programs' in districts similar to Forest Grove before disturbing orchestra, Suzuki violin, band and harp classes at Tom McCall, which are considered 'feeder' programs for strong music programs at Neil Armstrong Middle School and Forest Grove High School.

Musser said teachers were losing about 90 minutes of instructional time every other day at Tom McCall because students were leaving their core classes not only to participate in band and orchestra but also to attend special education, Title I reading and English Language Learners classes.

'That's a predicament,' he said. 'We're looking at test results in other districts and we are not satisfied or pleased with where our students come out.'

In order to meet federal No Child Left Behind standards and avoid potential economic sanctions, students 'need more time with their teachers in the regular classroom,' Musser said. Administrators are considering a number of ideas, including making band and orchestra an after-school program and using Boys and Girls Club buses to transport students home.

Musser wondered aloud whether flip-flopping daily schedules at Tom McCall and NAMS (the upper elementary school now starts later than the middle school) might be a way around the problem. Musser said that with an earlier start time at Tom McCall, it might be possible to create an after-school music program for fifth- and sixth-graders from 2:30-3:30 p.m.

Board chair Susan Winterbourne worried that such a move might drive some families away from an activity she considered part of the district's core curriculum.

She said the class configuration at Tom McCall was no longer working and suggested dividing focuses between the two campuses, making Tom McCall East 'a magnet cluster for the arts' and Tom McCall West a magnet school for science and math.

Musser said discussion would continue at the board level but that scheduling was ultimately 'an administrative decision.'

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