Sonoma County school districts join forces to revamp music program

West Sonoma County Union High, Guerneville and Forestville Union, with support from boosters and foundations, are sharing a music instructor position to help enliven and enlarge their music programs.|

All day Monday, Sadie Sonntag hurried.

From El Molino High School to Guerneville Elementary School to Forestville Academy, from Room D4 to G105 to 112, from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., she acted as a mobile conductor, stringing together a collaboration between three west Sonoma County school districts that is reinvigorating the music programs of each.

The result for Sonntag was music instruction from bell to bell - the proving ground of a new initiative that educators and boosters hope will build and sustain a broader music program linking primary and secondary schools in the area.

“If kids start with me in sixth grade, they will potentially have me for six years - hopefully they like me, because that’s a long time,” said Sonntag, a mezzo soprano. To win their trust, she tells students she is a skateboarder who once skated with skateboard legend Tony Hawk. She keeps her gear in her car to prove it.

Her position is a new one, supported by funds not only from the three school districts - West Sonoma County Union High, Guerneville and Forestville Union - but also from booster clubs and school foundations, under an arrangement that started to take shape last year.

At that time, efforts to fund a full-time music teacher had stalled over financing. The high school district, even with the support of its music-program boosters organization, Friends of Music, could afford only a part-time position.

“We felt that it would be challenging to find someone who could come to work for just that time and we knew that our feeder schools were having trouble supporting their music programs,” said Anne Paneno, secretary of Friends of Music. “And by the time students were arriving at El Molino, they might not have a music background and that makes it difficult to sustain a band.”

The high school’s marching band had been revived only last year, reaching the point where it was able to play in community parades. Keeping it going was a priority. “The communities really welcomed them with open arms. There was a lot of enthusiasm,” Paneno said.

West Sonoma County Union High district contributed $21,000 to the effort, while the Guerneville district, with assistance from Guerneville community groups, and the Forestville district, supplemented by the Friends of Music, contributed about $10,000 each.

The new program is making a quick impression among students and school staff.

“My dad always tells me, ‘Keep playing music, it’ll get you to be successful in school,’?” said Jonathan Johanson, 13, an alto sax player at Forestville Academy.

“I came down to the building that she’s in and I heard this incredible sound, it was fabulous,” Guerneville Elementary secretary Patty Grimm said. “It’s joyful.”

The combined effort pushed the arrangement across a key threshold, making Sonntag’s position nearly full time, enough to qualify for medical benefits.

“It’s so important to attract high quality candidates to be able to offer benefits,” said Steven Kellner, superintendent of the West Sonoma County Union High district.

“It’s a big deal,” said Sonntag, although she said she would probably do it without benefits.

Sonntag pushes her classes hard, urging them on with a full gamut of expressions that range from delight to horror, matched by punctuating vocal expressions.

She received her bachelor’s degree in music education from Sonoma State University and taught in Petaluma schools last year.

Working at all grade levels, from elementary school through secondary school, helps her as a teacher, she said. “I get to see the full spectrum, and it helps me be informed where all the kids are all at once. I get to see where they’re coming from and where they’re going,” she said.

Administrators say a more robust musical presence on campus serves multiple purposes.

“It allows the students to access other parts of their mind and be creative, to be able to see patterns in music,” said Jennifer Hegenbart, the Forestville Academy principal. “That helps them in science, math and other subjects, and it allows them to come together as a team with a goal and a common purpose, which we’re trying to promote with our Common Core curriculum.”

Matt Dunkle, principal at El Molino, said he sees benefits from more experienced musicians or singers working with students newer to the musical arts. “It’s nice to see both ends of that learning spectrum,” he said.

Plus, he said, it’s nice to be able to go sit in on one of the classes, “When you’re dragging a little bit and you’re not having a good day, it’s like, ‘Ahh, things are good.’?”

All three schools have suffered declining enrollment in recent years, and Hegenbart said the music program is seen as one way to address that.

“Having a startup of a band program within the school day, we’re hoping to foster and continue to grow their interest in continuing into high school,” she said.

The new offering resonates with many students.

Amid the morning fog that hung heavy over El Molino’s campus Monday, James Geisinger, 15, a drummer, put his all into the cymbals for “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

Making music gives him confidence, he said

“I don’t feel shy. I let out all my energy.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5483 or

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