Karen Klages: Altadena Teacher of the Year

Long-time music teacher Karen Klages believes music and performing arts are essential to a child's growth as a human being

By Justin Chapman, Altadena Patch, 12/23/2010

Although there were several excellent nominations for our Altadena Teacher of the Year Award from our dear readers, we chose Karen Klages, Pasadena Unified's District Music Specialist, for her long career teaching music to kids at .
While she has spent 20 years at Eliot, her career with PUSD is almost a quarter of a century long. She also teaches music at and Elementaries, but she enjoys the middle school level the best.
"The great thing is by the end of the program we get to see this huge growth spurt in terms of their musical abilities and passion," said Klages. "As a musician I'm still growing, too, of course."
Klages doesn't just teach band at all levels as well as the string program, jazz band and marching band, she also creates an ensemble that marches in local parades and events such as the Black History Parade, the Latino Heritage Parade, the Altadena Arts Council and other events.
"If we get a call, we'll go," she said. "It's important for the kids to get out there in front of people, and if they're feeling shy at first they get over it because they're in a group. And to me that's kind of the beauty of music; it brings them out of themselves and makes them part of a bigger picture, which is huge especially for middle school kids."
While most kids who come into her classroom start from scratch and don't take private lessons, instruments and instruction is provided to them, as well as a venue for these kids to excel. Dillor Zaarour, one of Klages' students, said her teaching method proves she knows what she's doing.
"She teaches by taking one group of students at a time," said Zaarour. "Like she'll take those who play trumpet and work with them, and she does that with each individual group of instrument players. Then we come together as a whole, and it comes together really nice. She does a fabulous job."
Nadine Isenberg, who was among those who nominated Klages and whose daughter was in Klages' class for two years, said Klages is extremely supportive of her students.
"Karen expands what the kids already know how to do," said Isenberg. "If they've already played one instrument, she pushes them to play multiple. That's so wonderful because it broadens their horizons and talents. She also takes them to high schools and gives them an opportunity to march with high school bands. That allows them to see if they want to continue and what their future can hold as far as their music at the next level. Then they're ahead of the game when they start high school."
Klages also helps out other teachers as the District Music Specialist. There are five part time elementary music teachers including Klages, who helps coordinate the music programs and classes. There are about 15 music teachers district wide. Eliot feeds primarily into Muir High and Pasadena High School, so Klages said it's important that they all work together and forge relationships with those high school music teachers.
She said the music program district wide hasn't been hit too hard by budget cuts so far, but she is concerned about the future.
"Last year we lost two music teachers," she said.  "We managed to make most of that cut in our elementary program. But we do a lot of after school stuff and when you're running a middle school program you just have to do that extra stuff. Budget cuts have us all running around more. We're still meeting the kids' needs, it's just we're sweating it more, and making it happen. Though I am worried about this year because they said there will be more cuts, and I don't see where more cuts can be made."
Sandi Holden, a music teacher at and president of that school's PTA, gave a wholehearted second to Klages' nomination for Teacher of the Year because of her professionalism and commitment to her students.
"It's not an easy job," said Holden, who was a former music consultant under Klages. What Karen does is a thankless job sometimes. But she keeps a very steady and chilled out response to whatever negativity comes her way. She keeps a real even keel and forges ahead. I like that about her."
Gene Stevenson, head of the Altadena Arts Council who also nominated Klages, praised her years of great work as well as the opportunities she provides for students to perform for the community.
"As far as I and the board of the Arts Council are concerned, she is the ultimate in what you would expect in an educator," said Stevenson. All three of his children were students of Klages. "I have the utmost respect for her for involving herself and her students in community events and organizations, and utilizing those opportunities to show the community just how creative the students are and how they evolve academically because of the music program."
Klages believes that music, and other performing arts, are critical to a child's development.
"I think performing arts in general, whether it's drama, music, singing, band or orchestra, being a part of a larger thing is incredibly essential for students' growth as human beings," she said. "Especially at this age when everything is so social, this is a way for them to relax a little in this environment and be part of something where we're all working together. And music is so academic. It's so tied to math; when you look at a sheet of music you're solving a problem. Kids that are learning in here, we're helping them with their academics. We don't know whether it's causal, but definitely the kids that are in music programs tend to do better academically, because they learn that focus and discipline."
Stevenson claimed that Klages took the example set down by her mother and has carried on that spirit in her own right as an excellent educator. To Klages, it's all about the children.
"The most rewarding thing for me is watching the kids' progress," said Klages. "Some of them come in here having never touched an instrument, and then to see them when they're playing in high school, it's just great."