Manatee middle school may lose orchestra over FCAT reading changes

MANATEE -- The impact of more rigorous FCAT standards is hitting a Manatee middle school in an especially painful spot: The orchestra class it offers as an elective.

Buffalo Creek Middle School's principal has decided the school will no longer offer orchestra next year to make more room in the school's master schedule for remedial reading classes, schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal said Thursday.

The school is expecting a drop in its FCAT reading scores -- to be released in June -- largely because of changes in how the test is scored. Buffalo Creek will eliminate orchestra as an elective so that more class time can be focused on helping slow readers catch up.

The decision has triggered an outcry among several families whose children have grown to love Buffalo Creek's orchestra classes and teacher Malissa Baker. Baker, in addition to teaching orchestra, is a certified reading teacher whose skills in teaching reading are in especially high demand because of the more rigorous FCAT reading tests.

"Every day when I go to school, orchestra is the highlight of my day," said Natasha Posada, a seventh-grader who took up violin last year. "It challenges me, it's really fun, and it relaxes me."

Natasha said news of the orchestra program's cancellation triggered an informal poster-writing campaign and even brought some students to tears. Her mother, Melodie Posada, has written a letter to Buffalo Creek Principal Matthew Gruhl asking him to reverse his decision.

"If you take orchestra from Buffalo Creek, then you will be taking from other potentially talented children the opportunity to find their musical talents that can only be found through orchestra," Posada wrote. "We do not have the money to give her private lessons. All that she has learned is through the orchestra program at Buffalo Creek. Buffalo Creek and Mrs. Baker have given Natasha the opportunity to realize her potential as a violinist."

Another parent, Bob Porter, has taken his concerns to the school board in the form of a letter. Porter's daughter Chelsea also is a seventh-grader taking orchestra.

"It is a real shame that the 'good' kids get their hopes and creativity stifled ..." Porter wrote. "I am asking you to reconsider this decision so that my daughter's eighth-grade school year is as fulfilling as this year has been."

Porter also criticized the lack of details provided to parents about the decision. He said he had heard rumors that the decision was based on an assumption that not enough students were interested in orchestra to continue the program. Another parent, Kim Herrin, had heard the orchestra class was being suspended to make room for an engineering course.

Posada had heard that at least 140 kids had signed up for orchestra next year, a statistic she said did not jive with claims that students were not interested in the offering. She had also heard the decision was related to concerns about FCAT scores.

Gruhl did not return repeated calls for comment to the Herald. But McGonegal said the school has no choice but to eliminate an elective if its scores show that more remedial reading courses are needed, and that all of its other electives have stronger interest. He said the situation is further complicated by the fact that Baker is a certified reading teacher.

McGonegal said the situation illustrated the negative impacts of changing how FCAT tests are scored and graded without giving schools the time to adjust. He had mentioned several weeks ago that one ramification of hastily changed FCAT scoring may be the elimination of electives to make room for remedial reading.

It's impossible to know yet if other middle schools will face the same ramifications, McGonegal said. He has asked Gruhl to re-examine his master schedule and determine whether at least a few orchestra classes can still be offered.

Christine Hawes, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Or follow her on Twitter @chawesreports.