BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Performing Arts Department in the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District appears to be doing quite well, but, as always, there is still room for improvement.

Dr. Laura Craig, supervisor of performing arts for the district, delivered a presentation on the state of the department Feb. 10.

“It’s been an ongoing process over the past year,” said Craig, with evaluations performed by a committee of performing/fine arts staff and other stakeholders.

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That evaluation included an examination of the programs; a review of curriculum; distributing and studying surveys; and making site visits. It also encompassed the utilization of research and best practices; examining what worked and what didn’t in other school districts; and developing recommendations.

The evaluation and examination occurred as part of a five-year cycle.

“We’re currently in year four,” said Craig of the process that began in January 2019, and culminated in her presentation before the board this month, with a curriculum rewrite also expected in the future.

She pointed out how the Bridgewater-Raritan school district had been selected as the 2019 NAMM Foundation’s “Best Community for Music Education” for grades kindergarten through 12 in the performing arts. The district has also earned New Jersey Music Education Association (NJMEA) regionals and all-state honors, has demonstrated both curricular and co-curricular competitive musical ensembles and boasted highly-qualified faculty.

The three primary areas the department has focused on are general music for grades Pre-K through eight; instrumental music for grades five through 12, as an elective; and choral music for grades four through 12, and as an elective from grades five through 12. There are three different bands, orchestras and choirs, with the highest-ranking ensembles serving as honors classes.

The district has also added, or is working on adding, programs in music workshop and advanced placement music theory in the high school grades, for college credit. Theater programs also exist, up to the high school level.

Concerning instructional time, Craig said Pre-K students receive about 720 minutes of instruction in general music per school year, or roughly 20 minutes per week. In grades seven and eight, students receive about 1,400 minutes of musical instruction annually.

In the middle school, the ensemble programs are based upon student learning needs, and are taught in installments. They are also rotated, so students do not miss much general education time when they are pulled out of regular classes to attend music sessions.

“It’s the nature of the middle school schedule,” said Craig.

Public performances usually consist of a winter concert and a spring concert, plus a Festival of the Arts in the spring, which encompasses three concerts (band, orchestra and choir), along with a visual arts exhibit.

Concerning assessments, Craig said district students are outperforming their peers in AP Music Theory. As for the sampling process, in how students are exposed to different forms of music, she said that about 50 percent of fifth grade students participate in beginning band or orchestra.

More than 60 percent of fifth graders are part of the choir, but only 15 percent of high school students in Bridgewater-Raritan participate in music at all, a figure lower than the state average of 20 percent for that particular group.

Regarding the Class of 2020, Craig said that group has been tracked over an eight-year period, beginning with fifth grade, and that their enrollment is consistent with five-year trends. She also said students did not usually join the band or orchestra after their fifth grade year, and that if they were not enrolled in (instrumental) music classes by that point, they probably never would be.

Craig added that about 42 percent of the Class of 2020 has special learning needs, and that only 59 percent of that group completes music education after originally registering for band or orchestra in the fifth grade.

Instrumental music education in the district actually begins as early as the third and fourth grades, Craig said, with the distribution and playing of school-supplied recorders. For instrumental music classes and performances in the later grades, students are expected to provide their own instruments, usually through rentals, although the district has its own inventory that can be utilized if students are not able to afford rentals or purchases.

Craig later said the district is also looking to increase that inventory of instruments.

Concerning the performing arts department, Craig explained that there are Monday department meetings held eight or nine times per school year. Surveys distributed last spring were returned by all of the 26 educators in the department, while responses from students in the district numbered 4,390.

As far as the various performing arts stakeholders were concerned, they had asked for increased musical options; greater musical access for all students; and maintaining existing performing arts themes, as students, parents and staff are proud of the current program.

Craig said the district has examined or engaged surrounding districts regarding their own performing arts programs, along with other districts in New Jersey, such as West Windsor-Plainsboro and its dance and theater programs. Takeaways from those interactions included a desire for greater student access to musical programs and incorporating financial assistance to obtain instruments.

Craig also said that the quality of teachers correlates to the success of musical elective programs in both the middle school and the high school.

Craig told the board that the 2020 New Jersey Student Learning Standards for arts education in the state are under review, in a four-piece process, for projected adoption this June.

“(It’s about) not being afraid of challenges or problems, and providing a great opportunity for our students,” said Craig.

She also cited collaborative discussions that have been held with the Performing Arts Program Review Committee, while thanking all those involved, and adding that having a small staff of less than 30 individuals helps. Program recommendations include ensuring performing arts education opportunities to all students, including music, theater and dance; maintaining high-quality programs; increased opportunities for all students in music, including potential additions of guitar education and music technology opportunities at the high school level; ensuring access and equity; and supporting program needs.

Another recommendation was the implementation of a curricular dance and theater program that could eventually be provided for grades kindergarten through 12. Other goals were to maximize instructional time; develop rental programs for instruments to offset finances; and to continually evaluate program structure and curriculum to best serve the student population.

Additionally, Craig said they would like to update and expand facilities, review budgeting and allocation and provide more greater professional staff growth.

In response to questions from the board, Craig said the department will explore after-school opportunities for a dance team.

As for implementing technology, professional development efforts last fall had explored a number of resources, as educators concurrently worked on rewriting the performing arts curriculum. The department had to rewrite the kindergarten through 12 curriculum by the time of the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) audit.

There was also hope of cross-pollinating the performing arts with other educational areas, such as language, mathematics and science.

School board president Jackie Barlow asked to receive more data, such as demographics and participation from different groups, including those who are economically-disadvantaged. Craig replied that that information will be in her final document.

“It’s a lot of data,” said Craig. “We have more information than we can share.”

Lazovick thanked Craig for her presentation, and also her department supervisors, and commented that the progress of society correlates with its progress in the arts.

“It’s uplifting for the entire community,” he said.