ALPHARETTA, Ga. -- It would be extraordinary on any day -- more than 800 student musicians performing together under one roof.
For many of the orchestra students and families who gathered in Alpharetta Monday night, it was something they may not see or hear again for a long time.
But they're not going down without a fight.
Fulton County School Board members voted 6 to 1 Thursday to cut the $4 million a year elementary school band and orchestra programs because of the projected, $120 million shortfall in next school year's system-wide budget.
That cut directly impacts 8,000 students, including the more-than 300 4th and 5th Graders performing with the older students Monday night.
"I think it would be something worth fighting for," said fourth grade violinist Hannah Schmitz.
The 7:00 p.m. cluster concert featured orchestras from New Prospect Elementary, Lake Windward Elementary, Creekview Elementary, Manning Oaks Elementary, Hopewell Middle, Webb Bridge Middle and Alpharetta High.
Ask any of the hundreds of other student musicians, and their parents, who streamed into Alpharetta High School's gym for the Monday night concert.
They'll tell you what they're already doing to try to change the school board members' minds, and save elementary school band and orchestra from the budget cuts that will eliminate the programs after this school year.
The orchestra class has "been helping me because it's been an inspiration to me," said Hannah.
"Music is very important to the children," said Hannah's mother, Joanne Schmitz. "It helps them to grow in different ways.... If they can excel in music, their math and their English perform better, also."
Parents have just hired a consultant, John Benham of St. Paul, Minnesota, who has a track record of saving music from school budget cuts across the country.
They hope they'll be able to show the board alternatives to the budget cuts; they hope to show there is enough money in the tight budget for the programs.
"When there's a will, there's a way," said Carim Charles, whose 8th Grade daughter began to learn violin in her elementary school orchestra.
"I think if they really want to keep it, they'll find a way to make it happen," Ms. Charles said. "Even if the parents have to contribute a little bit towards that."
The band and orchestra parents don't consider the programs to be luxuries in the schools, but practically life savers for children.
"She was a very shy child," said Melissa Vater of one of her two children in the orchestra program. "And this has helped her come out. Never as a youngster would I have thought that she would ever play or speak in front of a group. And she has learned to do both. And to see her grow and develop has just been a wonderful thing. And I believe music has been the key. It has reached her at times when other things would not."
Thousands have signed a petition, and they're e-mailing the board, hoping the board will vote again next month -- and reinstate the programs.
"The problem is they [the elementary school musicians] cannot defend themselves, they have no voice," said Ney Ayala, whose 6th Grade son started in the elementary school programs, and whose 4th Grade daughter started this school year. "They can only play, they have the music. But it's very sad." He has joined the fight to restore the programs.
"I was devastated, devastated," when the board cut the programs last week, said Scott Emroe, whose 5th grade son, Adam, plays violin. "This is their outlet. This is what they need. I mean, they really, really need it. Anytime you have something where they can learn, and they do better in school, it's just not right for them to take it away."
"I'm not sure what they can do," said Adam of the grown-ups, "but they have to fix this. I mean, I know the economy and stuff [is bad], but someone has to fix this."
Fulton County School Board members, along with Superintendent Cindy Loe, have said repeatedly at budget meetings over the past several weeks that they did not want to cut the programs, but couldn't figure out any other way as they eliminate personnel and programs to balance the budget. Dr. Loe has pointed out that elementary school principals unanimously preferred cutting the 59 orchestra and band teachers if it meant fewer cuts to other teachers and staff.
Dr. Loe is working on her proposal to organize after-school band and orchestra programs in the elementary schools, in time for next school year. Parents would pay the costs of the after-school program. Many parents expected Monday night that that alternative would prevent many students from participating because of impossible family-scheduling conflicts, or because they won't have the money, or both.
Dr. Loe is hoping to set up a scholarship fund for students whose parents can't afford after-school programs.
The annual event Monday night at Alpharetta High School was scheduled long before last week's school board vote. A similar concert featuring 1,200 to 1,500 4th to 12th Graders will be held at Northview High School on Monday, March 29.