The Starting Point
The San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory’s board advocacy work began with a reexamination of the organization’s mission statement in late 2006 as it sought to grapple with board member disagreement. Some members believed SDYS should focus on pursuing musical excellence, while others wanted to increase access to music education. The writing of a new mission statement initiated a process of reflection and dialogue that culminated in an understanding that the two objectives were not mutually exclusive but highly complementary.
Two years later, SDYS began the League of American Orchestra’s “Institutional Vision Program.” This three year training and practical application of the Jim Collins “Good to Great” framework solidified the full board’s commitment to a shared vision and belief in the importance of investing equally in “excellence” and “access.” The establishment of the vision to “Make Music Education Accessible and Affordable for All” was the culmination of the process to bring the board into full unity.
The board realized a strong connection exists between SDYS and the state of music education in schools when it examined the demographics of the students enrolled in the organization’s traditional youth symphony program. The majority of those students came from affluent communities where children have access to music education in elementary school. Children who did not have access to music education in elementary school were not participating in SDYS’s programs. Understanding this fact led to the board’s commitment to use its resources to influence the state of music education in San Diego County. Most of the county’s public schools in low-income areas had stopped investing in music education during the school day.
The board was so solid in its vision and strategy that it remained steadfast when several of the part-time artistic faculty and a small number of very vocal parents from the traditional youth symphony program objected. They were concerned that SDYS had diminished its commitment to “excellence” in favor of “access.” Though the board had unified around the notion that “giving access to excellence” was the path to fulfilling the SDYS mission and vision, faculty from the tradition of exclusivity in music training chose not to accept this new paradigm. The strong divergence of perspective led to the departure of several faculty members and withdrawal of approximately 20 students. However, the board remained resolute in its commitment to the new vision despite these departures.
Once the board had settled on its vision, a strategy for achieving the vision became necessary. The board understood immediately that it was unrealistic for SDYS to build the capacity and infrastructure to provide music education to the hundreds of thousands of students in San Diego County not receiving it. Creating such an infrastructure could only be achieved if it duplicated the existing public school system capacity to deliver educational experiences to every child. Instead, the board decided the quickest path to fulfilling its vision was to convince the county’s public school systems to provide in-school music and partner with them to make it happen.
The board started from the belief that school districts have the resources and capacity to deliver music education but don’t make music a priority. SDYS set out to influence school districts to invest in music education by launching the Community Opus Project. The Opus Project piloted a free after-school instrumental music instruction program for third-graders in the Chula Vista Elementary School District so that both school administrators and parents could witness the value learning music delivers to children. In this way, the board saw advocacy as the overall purpose of SDYS’s Community Opus Project.
Advocacy is now written into SDYS’s strategic framework as one of five principal activities. In the framework, it is defined as “Community Action” because in addition to exerting advocacy influence itself, the board aims for SDYS to galvanize community stakeholders, other partners, and parents to serve as advocates for in-school music education.
The community action work includes a robust community relations campaign involving numerous performances by Opus students throughout the community to build awareness of the benefits of music education and rally supporters. Opus students have performed before the city council, school board, parent committees, and local service organizations. Opus parents, who were encouraged to engage in the Opus lessons and attend school board meetings, have become powerful advocates for in-school music. The SDYS board now speaks of its success in terms of the systemic change it is achieving with school districts in addition to the individual change it is achieving with the student musicians in its programs.
Within the first year of SDYS’s Community Opus Project providing music instruction at no cost to third-graders in two schools within the Chula Vista School District, the positive effects of learning music were so apparent that the district asked SDYS to expand the program to serve more students and provided funding to help make the expansion possible. In the second year, the district asked for an expansion to in-school music, and, in the third year, it committed to returning the music education program that had been eliminated 15 years earlier to all schools. The district has already hired full-time music teachers for eight of its 45 campuses and plans to hire more each year until in-school music is available for all of its 29,000 students. SDYS continues to provide after-school instruction and support the restoration of in-school music for the district. SDYS now also works with several other school districts in the region to support and guide their efforts to return music to their schools.