Three parents of students with disabilities addressed Whitfield County Board of Education members this week, questioning the elimination of music therapy services from Whitfield County Schools for the 2016-17 school year.
“I know my son wouldn’t have gotten where he is today without all of the services provided to him through the school system,” Angelina Vaquera-Linke said. “I know that the budget is tight and times are hard, but what can we do as a parent to bring it back?” she asked.
After the meeting board member Thomas Barton said the decision was “totally economical.”
He said he appreciates the offers of parents to have bake sales and car washes.
“The fact that they are interested in doing it encourages us to do what we can to find money,” he said.
Barton said, however, it would be hard to hire a teacher with the promise of pay from car washes and bake sales.
“It was encouraging to have three sets of parents at the meeting, but we have budget constraints we have to stay within,” he said. “We have total confidence in the superintendent and directors. I’m sure if there is something out there that can be done they will find it.”
Sarah Hoskins, director of special education, blamed the decision on the tight budget.
The budget for the fiscal year that started July 1 includes $112 million in spending, an increase of about $4.5 million from the previous fiscal year, with most of that increase due to the school system returning to a full school calendar.
Hoskins said the music therapy program is something the school system has been able to provide for the past 12 years at a cost of $40,000 a year. Some 25 to 30 students with disabilities met with a therapist once a week for 30-minute sessions as part of the program.
“We had an independent contractor and her contract was renewed from year to year,” Hoskins said. “It’s not something that is required to do for students with disabilities, but something we’ve been privileged to be able to afford.”
Hoskins said looking forward to this year’s budget there was no money for the service.
“We had to make the decision not to renew the contract with the independent music therapy provider,” she said.
The county school system will still provide regular music classes. Students with disabilities will participate in music offerings that all children at the elementary school level do.
The difference in music therapy and regular music classes is that the therapist would spend more individual time with each student.
“Oftentimes students with autism have a difficult time communicating so it was helpful,” Hoskins said.
The therapy was used primarily on the elementary level with selected students and with older students with significant disabilities.
Bridget Tuck said her 5-year-old son Mason is one of the students who will be affected by the change. He has autism.
“Music therapy has been such a blessing for Mason,” Tuck said. “He has a hard time being in a room and going around a lot of people he doesn’t know, but music has really helped him.”
Tuck said her son was “completely nonverbal” six months to a year ago.
“He’s made a lot of progress, but one of our biggest concerns is a big regression if he doesn’t have something that keeps him going,” she said.
Mason began music therapy at the St. Mark’s Episcopal Church preschool under the same music therapist. Tuck said she and other parents are trying to find a way to have the music therapy program reinstated in the schools.
“Every child learns in a unique way. Music is Mason’s way,” she said. “One of the reasons we stayed in Whitfield County is because of the support. He can now sing the words to songs and he’s learning to communicate.”
Keisha Pinson said music therapy has made a big difference in her 5-year-old son Tzariel.
“He started being more vocal. Therapy gave him the ability to cope better in everything,” she said.
Pinson said her son has autism and cerebral palsy.
“He is mostly nonverbal, but since starting music therapy it’s made a significant difference. It’s a great concern of mine that we keep that therapy going,” she said.
Superintendent Judy Gilreath said she thinks that music does wonders.
“With the music therapy, students get an extra 30 minutes a week. We already have trained music teachers and they’re getting 30 minutes a week anyway,” she said.
Gilreath said as a former elementary school teacher she believes that some of the things Hoskins wants to put into place will be more beneficial to the children than just 30 minutes a week of music therapy.
Hoskins said one thing she is looking into is integrating music into instructional learning throughout the day. She is also looking at other therapies that could help students.
She said it was a difficult decision to cut the music therapy program.
“It’s strictly an economic reality when I’m faced with the small budget I have,” she said.
She offered to meet with the parents to further discuss how to meet the needs of their children.
“I’m very passionate about music,” Hoskins said. “I have a child working toward a music degree. It’s not a decision I made lightly.”