In classrooms across America, Glenn Holland has become a popular symbol for crusading arts teachers.
The movie hero of Mr. Holland's Opus makes personal sacrifices to share his musical passions with students.
The Rochester area's public schools have a generous supply of Mr. and Ms. Hollands. In a region known for its rich musical heritage and shrinking school budgets, they're carrying underfunded arts programs on their shoulders.
"We have wonderfully dedicated teachers in the city with a passion for what they do," says Joanne Eccles, one of five Rochester music teachers to help their schools win a national Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation award last year. "If a child doesn't have resources, we dig into our pockets."
They must dig deeper than ever nowadays to pay for art supplies, to chauffeur kids to lessons because of growing pressures on local arts education.
Many schools' arts budgets are strained at a time when educators stress the importance of the arts for student development. And increasingly, youngsters no longer encounter the fine arts at home.
These struggles are especially keen in some urban classrooms. The arts have become a microcosm of well-known inequities between city and suburban schools.
Some city teachers give lessons in former storage rooms even as suburban colleagues are building cutting-edge arts facilities. Greece's Odyssey High School, for example, has a new music suite with spacious band and chorus rooms. The town's Athena High School is building a 1,700-seat auditorium.
"Obviously, this community is making a statement that the arts are important," says arts director Louise Trucks.
The arts are important in the city, as well, which has pockets of excellence. Monroe High School's band room and remodeled auditorium have first-rate acoustics and amenities, and East High School recently bought new instruments for its band members.
But statistics obtained from the City School District confirm a wide gap between city and suburban schools' arts spending. The district spends an average of $820 per school for K-6 arts supplies, compared with $3,940 for the average Monroe County suburban school. City schools get an average of $103 for K-6 music equipment, while suburban schools typically receive $3,500.
"Some teachers get just $4 a child per year for arts supplies," says Patti Moscowitz, art teacher at Schools 2 and 46. "How much can you do with that?"
By contrast, French Road Elementary School in Brighton expects nearly $8,000 next year for visual arts supplies.
In Brighton and other school districts, principals set the budget for arts programs in their buildings. But the largesse of city school principals is tempered by the economic crunch.
"Our principals' hands are tied, because the money they get from central office has been significantly reduced," says Deborah Harloff, the City School District's instructional director of the arts.
Last fall, the Alliance for Quality Education warned that the City School District, which has an annual budget of more than $570 million, is underfunded 71 percent by the state. The Rochester City Council had earlier cut funding to the district by $7 million.
Still, arts staffing in Rochester has increased by five positions since 1999. "Arts education is an integral part of our students' education," says schools Superintendent Manuel J. Rivera, "and we have essentially 'held it harmless' in our budgets."
A fulfilling challenge
An itinerant teacher such as Eccles shuttles between three or more city schools a year. She calls her 18-year odyssey through Rochester's classrooms fulfilling but challenging. At School 7, she used to give lessons in a former girls' shower room and now teaches in a combined storage area and office. At School 42, she used a dark, room-size cage near the boiler.
"It was all they had to give me," she says. "But I'm very happy with my new space."
In this former science room, she's rehearsing pint-sized brass players on a recent afternoon.
"Try buzzing your lips!" she urges trumpeter Billy Hough, 10. "You'll sound better if you keep your lips buzzing."
Billy lets out a faint honk like a duck in distress. He soon produces a refined tone that blends with Amber DiPasquale's velvety saxophone. Her ponytail bobs to the music, a rendition of Jingle Bells.
"Let's do Christmas all over again," says Amber, 11. "More presents!"
Just a few miles to the west in Greece, Craig Hill Elementary School students also are learning about the arts as part of their science curriculum.
Fifth-graders are sketching zany machines in the spirit of Rube Goldberg, a cartoonist whose gadgets take countless steps for simple tasks. One boy sketches a mouse-powered conveyor belt; a classmate powers a pulley with two sparrows straining toward a birdfeeder.
"It's a fun way to learn," says 10-year-old Derick Peters. His school and Autumn Lane Elementary School are "Signature Schools for the Arts," which weave the arts into the curriculum to stimulate learning.
Programs such as this give students valuable hands-on experience with the arts. But their experiences with the fine arts at home can be just as important. And some city high school teachers are noticing a drop in cultural literacy.
"We're talking about rock-generation parents who got their values from TV," says School of the Arts music department Chairman John Gabriele.
"Their children arrive here not knowing classic children's literature, 'Home on the Range' or Mona Lisa. There's no common base of knowledge. We are it, and we have to reach these students now."
Lorie Dengler Dewey, who heads SOTA's theater department, has scaled back her freshman literature classes.
"Formerly, I taught them Shakespeare, Moliere or Chekhov," she says. "Now it's The House at Pooh Corner and The Star-Spangled Girl. By senior year, maybe they can do Shakespeare."
SOTA students are as talented as ever, she adds. But they're stretched from two directions: fewer resources in some grade schools and less exposure to the arts at home.
"Kids are coming to us with nothing," says Mark Phillips, 39, SOTA coordinator of arts instruction. "We've seen a dropoff in quality in every department. It's a serious hit to us."
Still, SOTA's arts programs remain the envy of most area schools. Students who want regular theater and dance must attend SOTA, because those disciplines have been cut back elsewhere.
Stretching clay and yarn
Outside SOTA, teachers' most frequent concerns involve outdated art equipment, some decades old.
"We're crazy impassioned and spend a lot of our own money for equipment, books, recordings and costumes," agrees Alice Pratt, general music teacher at School 16. "Many of us drive students to performances and lessons."
Visual arts teachers, too, sometimes have to stretch the clay and yarn.
"Art supply budgets are a huge problem," says Paulette Davis, arts-in-education coordinator for the City School District. "They depend on the principals and their spending priorities."
When judging the annual Scholastic Art Awards competition, Davis says, "I can really see a difference in the quality and variety of materials used. It's very sad to me, because it reflects school budgets rather than students' creativity."
City schools get grants for art equipment and programs from several foundations and agencies including the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation and the VH1 Save The Music Foundation. SOTA has its own support group, Friends of SOTA, which raises up to $100,000 a year for students in need.
The National Endowment for the Arts last year helped composers work with students in five Monroe County schools including School 42 and SOTA. These sessions were arranged by The Commission Project, a Penfield-based music program.
Such efforts are important because scant resources make it tough to meet state standards.
"If you get a classroom with nothing in it, it's hard to grab and hold kids' attention," says Rosemary Eichenlaub, a general music teacher at School 1.
Whenever finances permit, the City School District does purchase new arts equipment.
And the district also rents musical instruments to students on a sliding scale, but has only 4,000 instruments for 34,000 students.
Despite continued financial pressures, city arts teachers believe they can improve their situation through heightened public attention. After all, many of their suburban colleagues fought the same battle.
"Back in 1973, we were pinching pennies and had a buck per kid for art supplies," recalls Mary Ellen Donovan, who has taught art for 33 years in Brighton. "I started overspending, got chewed out but I kept doing it. I put classroom art up in the local library and malls to show what these students could do.
"In the 1990s, we finally got an improvement in funding. Why? We do our advocacy!"