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Burroughs High School music students, directors and chaperones visit Pali Lookout during their visit to Oahu. / Courtesy Photo

Music achievement, investments intersect at board meeting

Sierra Sands Unified School District (SSUSD)–  During the regular meeting of the Sierra Sands Unified School District Board of Trustees on Dec. 15, presentations from recent musical accomplishments and new funding streams generated enthusiasm about the future of performing and visual arts in our schools.

At the beginning of the meeting, Superintendent Dr. David Ostash introduced Mrs. Amber Petersen and Mr. Brian Cosner, the respective directors of orchestra, choir and band at Burroughs High School, to share highlights from the trip where 63 students rehearsed, performed, marched and toured in Hawaii as part of a Pearl Harbor Day commemoration program. 

“It is really exciting,” said Dr. Ostash. “But I also thought it would be appropriate, considering the board action later tonight to approve $3.1 million for arts and music grant funding.” (See background at the end of this article). 

Ostash noted that this is the first significant infusion of state funding in the arts since Prop 13 was introduced in the 1970s. “We are very, fortunate that Petersen, Cosner and others on the music teaching team are poised to take our music programs to the next level.”

Cosner introduced himself as a longtime “band kid” and current director of the bands at BHS and Monroe.

During the trip to Hawaii, he and Mrs. Petersen led band, choir and orchestra students through performances for audiences aboard the USS Missouri, an honor choir performance and parade for the Pearl Harbor Commemoration, as well as an up-close look at the geographical and wonders of the island of Oahu. 

“Just the experience of getting out of Ridgecrest and getting on a plane was a first for many of our students,” said Cosner. “To participate in cultural and historical experiences and the musical performance opportunities was truly the chance of a lifetime.”

Thomas Wonnacott, a senior at BHS and the Drum Major for the symphonic band, spoke about the benefits to students like himself in being allowed to participate in the experience.

Mrs. Petersen noted that her first year of teaching was in 2020 when educators were struggling to translate instruction through distance learning. “It was bleak … the students did not get the benefit of connecting with each other in person.” Even when small cohorts opened up it was a challenge to reintegrate students into live performances. “Our music program was brought to its knees.” 

Last year was an improvement, with modified performances in five BHS courses. This year, there are eight full classes — two for orchestra, three for choir, and three for the band.

She and Cosner were looking for new ways to breathe life into the program when the invitation to Hawaii came last spring. But having months, not the years it typically takes to coordinate, was also a challenge. 

“The parent, student and district support has been phenomenal,” said Petersen, who added that she was excited to hear about new investments into music. “It’s a thrilling time to be building on a thriving music program.”

Later in the meeting, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Michelle Savko identified several funding sources that have made possible a $3.1 million funding plan for district schools through the 2025-26 school year.

Assembly Bills 181 and 185, both approved this year by Gov. Gavin Newsom, established $3.5 billion in Art, Music and Instructional Materials discretionary block grants. Of this funding, Sierra Sands is eligible for almost $3.1 million.

The district has developed a process of inviting public input and expert oversight in identifying and meeting the needs of our students. Savko noted that parents have indicated that bringing comprehensive music instruction back into our elementary schools is a high priority. 

The district plan, which she said is highly amendable, establishes four full-time music teachers in the elementary schools, as well as funding for music and art instructional materials. Although most funds have been allocated at the elementary level, both the middle- and high schools will also benefit. 

Savko told the board that another unexpected boost to music programs came through a 60-percent reimbursement of district transportation costs from the state. That freed up the budget to provide additional support to music and arts programs. 

“This has been a long time in coming, and because of that I think we are all concerned that we get this right,” said Board President Bill Farris. “When we have something like this that we can build for the long-term benefit of the community, it is very exciting and rewarding.”