Friday, June 29, 2012

The Failure of A School District and Their Administration

The title of this post says it all.  I am, without a doubt, both shocked and embarassed by the school district I attended while growing up.  Their most recent actions have an entire community (from what I can tell, anyway) feeling the same way.  I suppose I should give a little background that will help explain why the feelings are so pervasive, then delve into what the school district has done.  When I was in elementary school, as with most of us, the educators asked who wanted to play an instrument.  Did you want to be in the band or did you have an interest in string instruments?  Even at the age of 9, I knew I was too cool to be one of 'those kids'.  Play an instrument?  Stay inside and practice while my friends were outside playing?  Nope.  Wasn't going to be me.  My parents found out long after the program had begun that I had decided, on my own, that I wasn't interested.  Not a pleasant night at home.  Then, as luck would have it, the band director recognized the future need of trumpet players in the high school program.  We were only in sixth grade, but the 'feeder' program was well utilized, and the music educators in the district communicated regularly.  It must be noted, too, that we lived in a small town of about 40,000 people that had three high schools.  The class sizes in the schools were small and the total enrollment when I graduated, encompassing grades 9-12, was right around 800 students.  This will play a part later in the post.  So, back to the story - I was in sixth grade and we had a chance to join the band program.  I wasn't going to make the same mistake twice so I signed up.  Fast.  There you have it, folks - I was a 'band geek' that played trumpet.  Yeah, I with it.

When we finally got to high school, the band director had spent years building the program and had begun competing at various marching competitions around the state.  Our freshman year, we were told there was a goal at the end of the season - we were going to head to the State Championships in Philadelphia held at Veteran's Stadium.  The year was 1975 (an eternity ago) and it was late August when we went started band camp.  No, nothing like the American Pie movies.  This was serious stuff...kinda.  We spent the last two weeks of August at the practice field by our high school, starting at 8:00 in the morning until late in the afternoon.  We eventually had the music memorized, the show on the field, and then continued to run through section after section perfecting it.  We continued to practice during the week, every Wednesday evening, as well as the hours spent after school.  By the end of the season, we were ready and headed to Philadelphia.  This little band walked onto the astroturf at Veteran's Stadium on a cold November afternoon...and proceeded to win the state championship in the Independence Division.  No big deal for many, yet one of the awards was the opportunity to march in the July 4th parade in Philadelphia, our nation's birthplace, on the country's 200th birthday.  In was a very big deal.

Fast forward three more years.  Not only was I in the band at that point, but some of my close friends had gotten me to join the Hanover Lancers, the oldest drum & bugle corps in the country.  More practice, more competitions, more fun.  A LOT more fun.  I had joined the orchestra as a trumpet player, too, and my closest friends shared these passions.  There, I said it.  Music mattered to us.  So here we were, three years later, and we'd spent the previous two years growing the program and rising to a different level as we had moved up a division and were now competing against larger schools.  We'd finished respectably those years while a sophomore and junior, but there were no other championships.  When I was a senior, I was joined in the band and orchestra by my sister.....who, it turns out, is a show off, too.  While I struggled to be proficient at one or two instruments, she proceeded to play clarinet, oboe, piano, saxophone, harp (yes, harp) and anything else she could to show me up.  She was good at them all, too, damn it...but, I digress.  So our senior year, our band director and staff decided we ought to try another goal.  This time, though we would continue to head to Philadelphia for the state title, it was decided we would also take a trip west.  Midwest, actually.  The Marching Bands of America National Championships were being held in Whitewater, WI.  They'd be held in June, I believe, which meant we would have recently graduated but (as with all schools) were still considered eligible for that year's competition.  In addition to the Grand national Championships, it was decided we ought to get a feel for the competition along the way.  There happened to be a competitive 'tour', held the week before we headed to WI, in Iowa.  The Mid-Iowa Combine was held in several different towns, several evenings in a row, where the same bands (typically) would compete against each other.  Think of it as a warm-up for Wisconsin and a way to gauge your competition.  The typical day consisted of waking up, usually on a gym floor or classroom in our sleeping bags, heading to breakfast set up by the parents group, then off to practice.  We'd practice until noon, then have lunch.  at some point, we'd load the trucks and buses, head to the town where we'd be competing, rest a bit, then practice again before getting dressed, warming up, and taking the field.  An entire week.  We loved it and I can honestly say it was one of the best trips ever.  We got to know people from NY, NC, MS, VA, as well as many other states, though there were certain schools with whom we developed a friendly rivalry.  After heading to Wisconsin and the University of Whitewater campus, we took the field on a warm summer night....and proceeded to win the second place trophy in our division and 5th place overall.  The only school in our division that beat us, Sylva-Webster from NC, was crowned National Champion overall so, it can be argued (we do) that the only school that beat us was the National Champion.  Again, of a school of about 800 students, our band had about 140 members.  Quite a percentage of the entire enrollment, don't you agree?  All this because George Rutledge, Charlie Brodie, and Bob Shreffler kept pushing us to excel.

The years following graduation had fostered a love of marching band that afforded me the opportunity to work with several high school bands, including the school in Atlanta where our director had relocated to start a new program.  I had the opportunity (one that I missed, unfortunately) to march with Spirit of Atlanta, a Drum Corps International corps.  If you ever want to really understand what I am speaking of, go to YouTube and search DCI or drum corps.  Watch the Blue Devils or the Garfield Cadets.  Any of them actually.  Tell you what, try the link below.  I think you'll be impressed.

So how does this tie in to the title of this post?  In the past several years, the enrollment in the music programs in my former school district have decreased greatly.  Now, as with many other districts around the country, there is a movement to eliminate the music program.  In Hanover, PA, the school district has decided to eliminate the band and orchestra from the elementary schools.  This was decided at a closed meeting with NO debate.  Students will not be able to begin until sixth grade now AND they must be deemed 'proficient' or 'advanced' on the PSSA's which, I imagine, are standards of learning tests.  The district, as I understand it, is trying to cut the orchestra program altogether.  This is where I have a HUGE problem and take issue with the administration.  I am not an educator...but I read and consider myself educated.  There are multiple studies showing a direct correlation between a student's aptitude and abilities and their involvement in the arts, notably music programs.  As someone who did not want to join the band, I can honestly say that I believe these actions to be a major error.  We have students today that are proficient at typing...on their cellphone.  I believe it is the responsibility of the district and the educators to foster the same love for music in today's students as was instilled in us, if not a greater love.  We are seeing lowered test scores every year, yet we are trying to cut programs that would enrich the lives of our youth.  We, as adults, ask almost daily what is happening to our kids today, yet we allow school districts to make ridiculous decisions.  Ironically, there never seems to be a shortage of funding for athletics (this coming from a very big college football fan), and we are continually noting the issues with sports.  Let me ask - when was the last time a tuba player suffered a concussion while playing?  Who was the last violinist to be accused of taking steroids?  When did one of them lie to Congress about what they were doing in the Orchestra pit?  You get my point....right?  I have to say, I am sorely disappointed in the school district (any district that goes down this path), and wonder what might have happened if they had considered this move in 1979.  How long it might have taken to run them out of office had they decided  our program needed cut.  It never would have happened because the parents wouldn't allow it, nor the students.  This needs to be reconsidered and changed.  Students need the arts and we, as responsible adults, should be finding a way to provide access for all.  

Until next time.................