Support Music Education in South Hadley, MA
Music Education positions at South Hadley High School have been cut by 1/3 for the 2017-18 school year due to a lower than normal enrollment in music courses. We feel this is not due to lack of interest but due to other influences as presented in the letter below. The South Hadley Music Parents Association is sending this letter to Dr. Nicholas Young, South Hadley Superintendent at the beginning of July to share our thoughts and concerns about this challenging situation. The full text of the letter is presented below, please sign to show Dr. Young the support we have in our community and from our Alumni for the music program at South Hadley High School.
Dear Dr. Young,
We would like to begin this letter by thanking you, the South Hadley School Committee, and the administration at South Hadley High School for being very supportive of the music department over these last 5 years. With your support we have been able to acquire new band uniforms for the students after using the same uniforms for more than 25 years, provide opportunities to students through offering many ensembles including Marching Band, Concert Band, Jazz Band, Concert Choir, Treble Choir, Vocal Roar, Show Choir, Indoor Percussion, and several student run ensembles, and organize several trips to take place that allow our students to compete with their peers at various state, regional and national competitions, and to showcase their work at festivals from Massachusetts to Florida. We appreciate this support for the musical education of the students in South Hadley.
With that being said, we are concerned with some staffing changes that are taking place for the 2017-2018 school year. This past school year there were 1.2 teaching positions worth of classes in the music department, allowing two music educators to be at the high school for the first time in more than 5 years. Having two educators allowed there to be a vocal specialized teacher and an instrumental specialized teacher available to our students, offering them an improved musical education. For the upcoming school year the staffing was cut back to 0.8 teaching positions, reducing the staffing level by a third, and reverting not only back to a single teacher, but also one working less than full time. From our understanding this decision was made due to a lack of students signing up for music classes at the High School. We believe this lack of sign-ups is not due to a lack of interest in music, but rather due to the nature of the High School’s current methodology for scheduling classes, the way that guidance is provided to students, and requirements that are currently in place for students.
In terms of scheduling classes, it is our understanding that South Hadley High currently offers students 7 classes, with a rotating schedule where 6 of those classes happen each day. Classes may be full year courses, half year courses, or a trimester course that includes Gym, Health, and Visual Art. This of course means that after taking required subjects such as English, Math, Science, Social Studies, and Foreign Language, that two class periods are remaining to potentially take electives, many of which are offered as half year courses. This would seem to be a perfect fit to allow students to take music electives. However, there are several challenges to this; some AP courses take two blocks worth of time, which then make it more difficult to take certain electives; freshman students required to take the Physical Education, Health, Visual Art course are also limited in what they may take that will fit in their schedule; years when we have two music teachers, Band and Chorus classes are scheduled during the same class period making it impossible for students to take a vocal and instrumental class, which many students do at the Middle School, but found it harder to achieve this past year at the High School level. Maybe some alternative solutions can be investigated with regards to the schedule. We are aware that South Hadley has had various scheduling processes over the last 20 years that made elective courses more accessible, including having more periods in the day, and or having more courses that rotated.
We would like to delve further into the current Physical Education, Health, Visual Art course, a requirement for entering freshman. We all can agree that these subjects are important for the students of South Hadley. We wonder however, why the third option of Visual Art was mandated for all students, rather than offering several elective options, inclusive of Visual Art, Music, Culinary Arts, Construction, etc. It seems a disservice to the students to require one elective option rather than letting a student pursue their interests during this formative stage in their development. Possibly for future school years additional options can be made available with this course, rather then restricting students to a single elective.
Students look to the guidance office for assistance when selecting courses as they enter and continue through their time at South Hadley High. It has been the experience of many parents from our organization that music is often overlooked or downplayed by the guidance department when assisting students with course schedules. Parents and students have expressed that they often need to assert themselves to get music courses added to a student schedule. When we dig deeper into this issue, one reasoning that we can find is that the guidance department will often suggest that students take a second Math, Science, or English course and even a guided study period rather than two elective courses. While we can certainly see value in this recommendation if a student has an interest in pursuing a post-secondary degree in a Math or Science based field, we also see value in guiding students to have a wide variety of experiences during High School. This should be a time where the students can really explore different fields that may excite them.
Another issue we see is that music courses are considered college preparatory level and not honors level. This means that a student taking 6 honors level courses and a study that is not included in GPA/ranking, will have a higher GPA/ranking than a student who takes 6 honors level courses and a college preparatory level music class, or 4 honors level courses and two college preparatory electives, even though the student taking the 7 full classes is actually taking a heavier course-load. Maybe more of the Music Courses can be offered at the Honors Level. Based on our experiences it seems that the guidance department needs to reevaluate its direction; which we feel should be to assist students in getting the most effective educational opportunities based on the individual student’s plans post secondary school rather than pushing students to have the highest GPA/ranking. It is important to remember that not all students choose to continue with post-secondary education, and that some who do, go on to pursue bachelor degrees in fields where Music, Dramatic Arts, Visual Arts, Culinary Arts, Construction, and Computer Science courses during High School would provide the groundwork for their university coursework.
Over the last 20 years Beth Ayn Curtis has poured her heart and soul into the Music Programs at South Hadley, and Ryan Caster enjoyed student teaching with Ms. Curtis to such a degree that he left a position at another school to come work in South Hadley. Both of them share a vision of another great musical educator that is no longer with us, Mr. George Parks, the former director of the University of Massachusetts Marching Band. They all believe that the music department is a place for everyone, and they instill this vision into every student they teach. Attached to this letter are excerpts from several music scholarship applications that exemplify how these educators make the music department an inclusive place where students flourish. It is a testament to her devotion to her students that Ms. Curtis is taking a leave and having Mr. Caster fill the music teacher position for the 2017-2018 school year. Ms. Curtis’ education is focused on Vocal Music, and with the current challenges discussed, the chorus courses are most affected. Mr. Caster’s education is in Instrumental Music and so Ms. Curtis feels the students will get the best educational experience with him.
We also would like to recognize that Brooks Holmes and Tricia Murawski do a wonderful job with the music program offerings at the Middle School. They work through the challenges to offer Band and Chorus to the students there, often through programs that occur outside of the traditional school day, and have well over 100 students participating in Band and Chorus. We have noticed recently that students in the middle school who are interested in getting an early start on foreign language studies are needing to drop Chorus to do so. These students then are not returning to Chorus at the High School most likely due to lack of guidance support as discussed earlier.
Given the success of the music program at the Middle School, and the history of a large music program at the High School, we are sure that with some adjustments, we can return to offering the best music opportunities to the students. We know that creating a course schedule for 500+ students is not always the easiest exercise, and that there are always constraints. We hope that we can work together to come up with some solutions that will allow South Hadley High School to offer at least 1.5 teaching positions worth of music and drama courses for the 2018-2019 school year and once again have two amazing educators working for our students.