Community rallies to save violin program

Educator of the year Lori Franke plays with a small group of students in her 45 student violin class at Antonio Del Buono Friday, as she demonstrates what songs they will learn in the coming months, on their first day. Franke has been doing violin instruc

A popular “gem” of a program that’s turned hundreds of elementary students into budding violinists for the past 13 years is threatened with a $17,000 budget cut that could slice the program in half.

Irresistibly endearing with its cadre of youthful musicians ranging from kindergarten to fifth-grade students, the flourishing violin program at Antonio Del Buono Elementary School is a “cherished” community asset. The group, which makes frequent appearances at concerts, fundraisers and the Gilroy Garlic Festival, was founded in 1999 by director Lori Franke. The highly respected teacher and passionate violinist took the program from 20 students to its present-day 75 students.

Astonished that a violin program wasn’t already in place at Gilroy’s schools, Franke made it her goal to “get strings in public schools” after moving to Gilroy from Southern California in 1995.

Since then, ADB parents like Annie Padron can’t gush enough about the violin program that’s helped her 6-year-old daughter, Reyna, stay excited and engaged in school.

“You can see a change in them,” she said, of the students who become entrenched in the music. “You see them become studious, and their self esteem grows … when they get that violin, oh my gosh, their faces are just smiling and they hear the music and they start to play and it starts coming together and it’s priceless … to see them dressed up and feeling so important; they know it’s something special. It’s just a wonderful program.”

Due to budget setbacks, however, the program – something Franke estimates is unparalleled in Santa Clara County – could be in major jeopardy next year.

“I found out about two weeks before school got out that the budget had been cut, and that ADB could only afford me half the time,” said Franke. “I was really shocked…it was quite disheartening.”

In reality, the budget downsize will reduce Franke’s presence at the school to a quarter of what it is now. As it is, Franke only works part-time.

With $17,000 plucked from the program’s funding stream, this means Franke will have to choose between taking a hiatus from ADB beginning in December, or reducing the number of participants to half of what it is now.

“How do you decide who you should take, and who should go?” she questioned. “I think that’s totally unfair … either way, the kids are going to be the ones who will lose out.”

That is, unless a grassroots effort set into motion by Franke, parents, concerned community members and local governments leaders can generate enough money to help offset the budget cut.

Save the strings

To get the ball rolling, a fundraising event with all the trappings will take place at 6 p.m. this Friday at the IFDES Lodge-Portuguese Hall at 250 Old Gilroy St. The gathering will feature a three-pasta dinner, salad and garlic bread whipped up by comedy-cooking duo Sam Bozzo and Gene Sakahara (aka the “SakaBozzo twins”). Performances by the ADB violinists, a local youth mariachi group and a local folklorico group will follow. There will also be a gift basket raffle and live auction hosted by Mayor Al Pinheiro that features great prizes like a getaway stay in a lake cabin in Tahoe.

Pinheiro says donations of all kind have bee pouring in from the community and local businesses such as Costco. The goal is to sell 150 tickets at $25 a piece, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the ADB Violin Program.

Pinheiro understands that the Gilroy Unified School District is grappling with the very real threat of an $8.1 million cut in state funding next year. He says the obvious solution is for community members to roll up their sleeves and hit the ground running with fundraising.

After accompanying Franke and a group of her violinists on a 2006 musical tour to Pinheiro’s hometown in the Azore Islands of Portugal, Pinheiro says ADB’s unique violin program has developed a “very special place in my heart. I hate to see the kids not have an opportunity to continue.”

Pinheiro said he also worked out a deal with the Gilroy-based Silva Sausage Company, which will donate a portion of its food sales generated during Saturday’s Garlic City fun run and car show to ADB.

After seeing so many of ADB’s tiny violinists blossom in to “great young people,” Pinheiro says he just “fell in love” with the program.

“You see the little 4-year-olds and it’s just awesome,” he said. “I want to make sure they continue to have the program for kids who want to do that.”

So does school board Trustee Pat Midtgaard, ADB’s first and former principal who recalls when the program was just taking off 13 years ago.

“It’s cherished by parents and the staff and the community,” she said. “It’s really valued. It is a gem.”

News of the $17,000 cut came as a surprise to Midtgaard, who said the issue has never been agendized for discussion during past school board meetings. GUSD Superintendent Debbie Flores said the desicion was carried out by ADB principal Velia Codiga and her school site council, who, along with all the other GUSD school site councils, saw their 2012-13 site allocation funding drop by about 5 percent.

Like Midtgaard, GUSD Trustee Mark Good was unaware of any negative budget impacts to music programs at ADB.

He’s not surprised by the unpleasant news, however.

“We’re cutting everywhere, thanks to the governor and our current legislators,” he said. “They’re systematically dismantling public education as we know it. Our backs are up against the wall.”

As principals labor to keep budget cuts away from core subjects, pushing art and music to the “outer edges” of the priority list is a sad but age-old reality, Midtgaard said.

She recalled, with a noticeable trace of nostalgic fondness, occasions when Franke would knock on the door to the principal’s office and ask, “Do you have time for us to perform for you?”

“And they would come and perform in my office,” laughed Midtgaard. “She’s such a special teacher.”

Other ADB parents like Laura McCoy feel the same way.

With her 8-year-old daughter, Megan, now playing violin, it’s a sweet tradition carried on after McCoy’s mother – who also played the violin – passed away one year before Megan was born.

“It’s really fortunate and meaningful to us to keep this program going,” she said.

Despite the daunting setback of a $17,000 budget cut, Franke remains confident that parents, school advocates and community leaders will rally together to raise the necessary funds needed to keep the program alive and thriving.

“I just feel that kids deserve to have a really well-rounded education, and music is something that can help with that,” she said Thursday, taking a break from giving a private music lesson in her home, where the melodious twang of violins flooded the background.

Franke’s insight to how a musical instrument can shape a young person’s life stems from her personal experience as a child struggling with dyslexia. After begging her parents for lessons, Franke’s parents caved in to what proved to be a game-changing investment for their daughter.

“To this day, if it hadn’t been for that violin, I don’t know what I would have done,” said Franke, who graduated from Brigham Young University in Utah and is slowly working towards her master’s degree.

“I don’t always think the music should always be the first one to go every time,” she maintained.

Supporters of the ADB Violin program plan on organizing a fundraiser every month.

To purchase a ticket for Friday’s event, call Lori Franke at (650) 305-0168 or purchase tickets at the door.

• A fundraiser to help offset a $17,000 budget cut to the popular violin program at Antonio Del Buono Elementary School will take place at 6 p.m. Friday at the IFDES Lodge-Portuguese Hall at 250 Old Gilroy St.
• Features a three-pasta dinner, salad and garlic bread whipped up by comedy-cooking duo Sam Bozzo and Gene Sakahara (aka the “SakaBozzo twins”). Performances by the ADB violinists, a local youth mariachi group and a local folklorico group will follow. There will also be a gift basket raffle and live auction hosted by Mayor Al Pinheiro.
• Tickets cost $25. To purchase, call Lori Franke, director of the ADB Violin Program, at (650) 305-0168. Tickets can also be purchased at the door.

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