Last week, I attended a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It's my (adopted) home state, but even after eleven years, I'd never been to the Capitol. After a three-and-a-half hour drive, I parked a couple of blocks away and headed over toward the area where the group was scheduled to be.
They’re from a suburban Philadelphia school district, not very different from my own. Their music and arts programs had a strong, healthy history.
And now those music programs in the elementary schools, along with art, physical education and library services were on the chopping block. Unthinkable! I came to Harrisburg to find out why, and to see if I could learn anything to share with music parents nationwide that might help. I met up with AMP CEO Scott McCormick, who flew out to attend to their school board meeting the night before and to speak at the rally as well.
The puffy clouds stood out strikingly against the bright blue sky, a perfect early summer's day. As I neared the Capitol dome, I could hear a crowd chanting. Turning a corner, I spotted the group, carrying brightly colored signs and wearing tees emblazoned with "#savetheartsUD." The group has been spearheaded by Colleen Kennedy and Rachel Ruitberg.
I approached, listening to the speaker at the podium. She was explaining that for years, musical performers had come from economically challenged areas. Without these classes offered in the public school system, an entire generation of children would be denied the opportunity to express themselves through the arts. "Classes like the arts, gym, library, and technical education get these kids out of bed in the morning!"
I thought back to my own school days. There was always a group of kids who just didn’t get into what was going on in the traditional classroom. They lived for what we called “specials” in grade school, and electives in high school: art, music, gym, and library.
Everything that is on the chopping black at Upper Darby.
After she had finished speaking, I pulled her aside. Her name was Stacey Hawley, and has been an active parent within the Upper Darby School District. I also talked with Louis F. DeVlieger, Superintendent of Schools for the Upper Darby School District. He is tremendously supportive of the arts programs. I listened to Cheryl Wanco speak at the podium: "We are all Upper Darby!" I spoke with Claire Progner and Maria Nixon, sisters who tie dyed tee shirts and came out with their children in support of saving the arts programs in Upper Darby.
As I continued to talk with many other dedicated supporters, I heard countless stories about the positive experiences students had at Upper Darby. These students had enjoyed a well-rounded education that had helped shape them into positive, productive members of society. It's something that most of us take for granted: a quality public education for our children.
Now, all of that is in jeopardy.
Now, these parents and the students themselves are finding themselves having to fight tooth and nail in their precious spare time to protect what most of us have come to reasonably expect as American citizens.
If you had asked me a year ago my reaction to a news story like this, I would have been disappointed, and certainly sympathetic, both as a student who enjoyed a thorough arts education and as a parent of two elementary school students.
That’s where it would have ended.
But now, working with AMP, I read news stories day in and day out about budget cuts. Not just careful trims, or the ever-present “belt-tightening,” but large, sweeping slashes that turn thriving, successful community school districts into neutered shells of their former selves.
And this isn’t just happening in red states, or blue states, or even yellow-polka dotted states. It’s happening everywhere. Nationwide.
I know that politics can be a touchy issue for many. And though public education should never be played for politics, it has. And it will. Because that’s the way our system works. We the People elect our school boards, our state and national legislators.
In short, the politicians will NEVER care as much about this issue as we do. And chances are, it will not be in their best interest to act on this issue.
Unless We the People make it very clear that their jobs depend on it. Our school boards and elected officials are “public servants” acting on the behalf of the community they represent.
If these budget cuts haven’t happened to you or someone you know yet, don’t shake your head in sympathy. Don’t count yourself lucky.
Because if it hasn’t happened yet, it likely will.
And by the time it hits the headlines in your hometown newspaper, it’s already too late.
Just ask those nice folks from Upper Darby, fighting an uphill battle in the shadow of the state capitol.
Grace Grant, a freshman at Upper Darby High School, shared her thoughts at the rally:
"…As I grew up, there was one thing that stayed constant my whole life. That was art.…I began to paint, and sculpt, and sketch.…I experimented with…the recorder, ukelele, guitar, and keyboard, but my love of arts has always been there for me.
"When times were tough, and I didn't believe in myself, there was a teacher who helped me….Without him, and his fellow teachers in the art department, I wouldn't be here. Upper Darby would have one less honors student, one less artist, one less writer, and one less person that wants to make a difference.
"I say our arts should stay because arts and music can be the difference between life or death for some people.
"One of them was me."
Due to financial difficulties, America faces the possibility of losing something vital, something that money can't even begin to buy. If academics are the brain of our school system, the arts are the heart. And let’s not forget that current legislation in No Child Left Behind identifies music and the arts as core curricular, as much part of the academic fabric as any other subject.
Music in our schools helps children learn. It teaches community, creativity, teamwork, responsibility, and character. Music makes students better people, and that's something that America simply cannot afford to lose.