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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

MPS Music Education Expansion Underway With 40+ New Teachers

Student hops to the beat of a song.
Emily Files
A third grade student at Neeskara Elementary hops to the beat of a song during Meaghan Heinrich's music class.

In 2019, a group of Milwaukee Public Schools music teachers petitioned the school board to address inequities in music education.

Music had languished to the point that some high schools didn’t have a single music teacher, and elementary schools relied on contracts with outside groups for music class.

Two years later, an ambitious plan to expand music in MPS is underway with about 40 new teacher hires this year and next. It’s funded through a taxpayer referendum approved by voters last spring.

One of the new teachers is Meaghan Heinrich, who teaches three days per week at Neeskara Elementary and two days per week at Emerson Elementary.

On a recent Friday at Neeskara, Heinrich led an energetic, mask-wearing third class in songs like "Jump In The Line (Shake Senora)" and rhythm exercises that involved hopping around a hopscotch circle to the beat.

"It had been a long time since either of those schools had a consistent music teacher from year to year," Heinrich says. "So we’re kind of starting from scratch."

Neeskara music teacher Meaghan Heinrich holds her classes outside on days with nice weather.
Emily Files
Neeskara music teacher Meaghan Heinrich holds her classes outside on days with nice weather.

The mostly virtual school year compounded Heinrich's challenge of starting a music program from scratch. She finally got to sing with her students in-person when schools reopened mid-April.

"The first time I was back in-person with the students and got to hear them sing as a group, I got incredibly choked up," Heinrich says. "Because all year I had been having one student at a time unmute and sing back to me or have them all unmute and it sounds like chaos."

The reason some MPS schools have gone years without a consistent music teacher is because many of them budgeted for the bare minimum of a .2 position – a one-day-a-week music teacher. Many of those jobs went unfilled.

"I feel like music is a human right, and there were children in this city who did not have that — through no fault of their own," says Sharie Garcia, who was hired as MPS's music curriculum specialist in June 2020. "No one person was directly responsible for any of that. It was a series of circumstances that we are starting to correct."

The correction is happening through a new music policy drafted by teachers and adopted by the school board. The policy sets a minimum number of music instruction minutes for students, which requires boosting those .2 positions to half-time or full-time at many schools.

Garcia describes how many new teachers MPS is hiring, using funding from the April 2020 referendum: "So this year there were 23 teachers serving 27 schools. Some of them were in divided positions, some were in single positions. And then next year we’re looking at 20 teachers serving 25 schools. For example, at Bradley Tech High School — there wasn’t a music teacher at Bradley Tech, now there’s a full-time music teacher. Based on the population of the school, that’s what they need to serve their students and meet the minutes outlined in the policy."

Many of the new positions are located in the central and north parts of the city, at schools with predominately Black student populations.

"There was a big gap in the middle of the city — the central city, the north side," Garcia says. "Purposely, we filled in that gap. We put teachers in those schools that historically had nothing."

Garcia estimates that MPS will go from having about 60 music teachers in 2019 to more than 100 in fall 2021.

Kristin Valentin, a 2014 MPS grad, is the first full-time music teacher at Hayes Bilingual School in over a decade. Valentin says she wants to give her students the opportunities she had when she attended Reagan High School.

"There’s this indescribable feeling you get when you perform in a choir or an orchestra or band that makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself," she says. "You feel like you belong. And I personally didn’t feel that until I was part of the music program at Reagan."

Valentin was recruited to teach by her former choir director, Reagan High School teacher Erica Breitbarth. Breitbarth is one of the veteran music teachers whose advocacy pushed the district to provide music to thousands more students.

"We were just really relentless," Breitbarth says. "We saw what was so good about the [music programs] in our own classrooms and we started to feel this discomfort with that not being the case for schools around our district."

Ben Zabor, a 20-year music teacher at Rufus King High School, says the music policy, along with MPS’s newly adopted salary schedule, could make the district a destination for music educators.

"All of a sudden what we've done is transformed MPS music from a place where people did not want be, to a place where people really do want to be," Zabor says.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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