HAYWARD -- The choir kids get to school before the winter sun rises and leave after it sets, but for the Mt. Eden High School vocal music program, the song is still strong.
The group, directed for more than 20 years by instructor Ken Rawdon, is one of four in California recently invited to join other choirs from around the world for the Festivale Corale Internazionale di Roma at the Vatican in Rome in June 2012.
"It's really beyond our reach -- I don't see any way to make it possible," Rawdon said. "We're talking about 110 students, at minimum a couple thousand dollars a student, and that's not including passports. "... Yes, it's great, and yes, it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but I have a problem spending that kind of money at a time when (the district) is cutting younger kids' opportunities to even have music."
The invitation is the latest of many such honors, and the walls of the choir's practice room shine with trophies and appear wallpapered with plaques and certificates of commendation. Over the years, the choir has been to Carnegie Hall and Avery Fischer Hall in New York City and is a consistent top scorer at the Anaheim and Orlando music festivals.
Like many programs at Hayward schools, the choir took a hit not just from funding cuts but also from a change to the former "block" schedule system. That change has made it difficult to carve out necessary practice time since the new schedule was implemented at the start of the 2009 school year.
As a result, choir members begin their day with practice at 6:45 in the morning, then go to classes, and reconvene after school for a session that runs into the evening.
Those are long days, said choir President Roy Casas, a senior who has been in the choir all his years at Mt. Eden. And the kids have to make sacrifices if they want to keep singing.
"Some of them can't take another year of a language, or another elective," Casas said.
Others can't participate in after-school sports.
"There's a bone of contention between us and the athletic department," Rawdon said. "We're in direct conflict with each other. I hate that."
Casas said there also are kids who can't get to campus early. For that and other reasons, the choir's numbers have dwindled.
There used to be 40 boys in the choir. Now there are 23. All told, they are about 30 heads short of the 140-singer ensemble they boasted before the schedule change.
"But I'm glad to say we were able to sustain it somehow," Casas said. "We were worried we might not have a choir at all, but we managed to adjust."
Rawdon said they are getting by, although they've "definitely paid a price."
"I don't mean to sound like a whiner," he said. "The kids are real troopers, and make it work. "... The choir had a good, solid, stellar enough reputation that it's still a draw for students, but they make a hell of a lot more sacrifices. But I don't want to complain too much, it could be a lot worse. "... We're creative people. We find ways to make it work, no matter what."
And not going to the Vatican wouldn't be the end of the world, either, Casas said.
"It would be really good to go, but it's still a good honor," he said. "The invitation itself is a nice thing to have."