Parents working to secure VWSD violins|Move follows program cut in Jackson

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 9, 2009

Shaken by last month’s news of cuts in Jackson Public School District, some Vicksburg parents are stepping up efforts to keep the Vicksburg Warren School District’s violin program from meeting the same fate.

“We want to make sure it’s not in jeopardy, given what happened in Jackson,” said Sarah Nichols, whose daughter, Kayla Shoemaker, 10, is in the fifth-grade violin program at Beechwood. “Usually, the extra-curricular activities are the first to be cut” when the school district trims their budget, she said.

JPS board members voted in October to discontinue a 42-year-old violin program in 22 of its schools, but last week some school board members suggested reconsidering a new contract after hearing outrage from parents.

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Nichols is a professor at Hinds Community College Vicksburg campus, who also advises the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. The group is leading an initiative to provide the only violin program in the VWSD, taught by retired physician Jerry Rankin, with funding to buy more instruments.

“Any child who wants to participate, but doesn’t have the money, we can help offer scholarships,” she said.

The scholarships will be used to purchase beginner violins for $150 to $180 each.

“What we’re trying to do with Sarah is to get violins for kids who cannot afford them,” Rankin said.

The group has been collecting donations, in addition to having hosted a fund-raiser in October held at McAlister’s Deli, where a portion of sales for one night was donated.

Their goal is to raise enough money to purchase five more violins by the end of the school year.

Jack Grogan, Beechwood’s principal, said the school district pays Rankin about $32,000 annually. There is no state supplement. Cutting the program in Jackson was expected to save JPS $300,000, according to published reports.

Rankin said parents are usually the ones who shell out the initial investment to purchase or rent the violins and other supplies.

The violin program here has 45 students total, at Beechwood, Warren Central Junior High School and Warren Central High School. The Jackson program enrolled more than 400 students from 22 schools.

Like Nichols, Karla McHan is also a parent with a son in the program. Brian, 11, is an intermediate-level concert master for the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra’s youth symphony.

“If they lose the program in Jackson, it’s probably going to affect the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra,” she said, because several professional musicians depend on the schools for employment.

Without their JPS jobs, “Those musicians won’t have the extra income and they would have to move or close the symphony, which would close the youth symphony” in which many Vicksburg youths participate, she said. “Certainly, if they close a program that’s 42 years old in Jackson, it’s going to be hard to build one here.”

She and other parents of MSO students have been sending letters and e-mails to JPS officials expressing their thoughts, in addition to being vocal at recent JPS school board meetings.

While parents here are doing everything they can to keep the violin program alive, Superintendent James Price said in a statement, “We are very proud of our violin program under the direction of Dr. Gerald Rankin. He has grown the program over the past few years to about 45 students. We have no intention of cutting the program now or in the near future.”

Rankin said the program could grow. “We are, in a way, a victim of our own success because it has become so popular here,” he said. “It has grown so much that it’s more than I can handle. What we need is another teacher.”

McHan agreed. “I think we need more instructors,” she said.  “The program had grown so fast. We need more classes so they can divide up the skill level a little bit more differently.”

The violin program began as a pilot program at Beechwood Elementary four years ago when Rankin, who also served as a high school biology teacher, approached Price about the idea.

“We looked at two schools, but it worked out at Beechwood,” Rankin said. “In the beginning, we wanted to see what kind of interest we would have, and the interest was phenomenal.”

At the beginning of the school year, Rankin said, he was able to accept only 22 new students out of the 60 applicants.

Students in the junior high and high school violin classes receive grades, but violin class is considered an activity at the elementary school. “In a way, this is fine because it give them a chance to see if they like it before they get to junior high, where they practice more and learn to get a grade,” Rankin said.

The elementary classes perform an annual holiday concert for residents of Belmont Gardens and the upperclassmen perform annual recitals.


Contact Manivanh Chanprasith at