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I Sit And Look Out: Art and music classes must return to schools

I'm not an educator either, although I have taught some college courses and a graduate seminar. But that lack of professional activity does not make me hesitate about pontificating concerning the state of education in New York City.After all, I am a native New Yorker and a product of the New York City public school system, as well as the public college system. And while my current educational contacts are limited to those who teach science and environmental education, I think I have a fairly good idea of what is going on, at least from an interested layman's point of view.I have no quarrel with efforts to teach children to read and write well. Nor do I have a problem with efforts to teach them mathematics. And certainly, science education needs a large boost in this country; we are falling behind other industrialized nations.But, these emphases tend to leave out other areas of education which are important, if we are to have citizens who are what used to be called "well-rounded" in their knowledge. I mean the study of art and music.When I was growing up in Elmhurst, I attended PS 102 on Van Horn Street in Elmhurst and then Junior High School 73 in Maspeth, before moving on to Newtown High School. I was in school when the financial situation in the nation and in the city was not one of great prosperity.Nevertheless, there was always art class and there was always music class. It was a given. Such classes were part of the education we received.(An interesting coincidence: In sorting through some old papers recently, I found one of the small monthly "newspapers" published at JHS 73. It mentioned that the principal was not only a pianist, but had played a program of Liszt, Beethoven and Chopin for the students during the music program the previous month. That's how much music was thought of in those "poor" days.)So what happened?Why is it different today, especially in schools in poorer neighborhoods, where children do not have the access to the wonderful art and music venues of our city that are enjoyed by those from more affluent homes? Why can't the education system afford music and art classes throughout the school system on a regular basis?These should not be "fringe" subjects, easily disposable when times get tough. They are part of the basis of a proper education in a democracy and should be available to all.It is especially disheartening to see the lack of universal art and music studies in a city which many of us consider the center of the universe when it comes to so many things. Certainly we are the "culture capital" of the nation - and perhaps of the world. But not all our children benefit from their proximity to these resources. How many of them are made aware and take advantages of our marvelous museums and the many places where music is played?In Elmhurst and in Maspeth, in times of financial problems, art and music were there for me when I grew up. Why should it be different for today's children, when economic times are so much better?We can and must improve this situation. The soul of a city and a nation is not based on tests of English and math alone. We must find a way to bring back art and music for all the students of our great city - and keep it back.There are some hopeful signs: A coalition of parents from three school districts in Brooklyn, calling itself the Brooklyn Education Collaborative, has joined with community groups and two labor unions to push for more music and art classes. It has pointed out that in 29 schools in the three districts with middle grades, 15 have no music classes. Isn't it time for Queens parents to start some action along these lines?(Looking ahead: National Trails Day will be celebrated throughout New York City on Saturday, June 4. To find out about what is going on in Queens, call 311 or visit www.nyc.gov/parks. On Saturday, Sept. 24, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the Alley Pond Environmental Center will hold the "Little Neck Bay Festival," as part of National Estuary Day. To find out about it, call 718-229-4000. I plan to write a column about the day and its local observance at APEC sometime in late summer.)

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