Cuts threaten Upper Darby schools’ legacy of arts

Chorale director Barbara Benglian prepares the Encore Singers, including Masaki Saitoh (left) and John Conroy, for a concert. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Chorale director Barbara Benglian prepares the Encore Singers, including Masaki Saitoh (left) and John Conroy, for a concert. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 28, 2012

Up­per Darby High School maintains a col­lec­tion of im­pres­sive­ly large trophies, showcasing decades of ex­cel­lence. This spring, to no one’s surprise, sev­er­al more were added, top prizes at a na­tion­al com­pe­ti­tion.

All this is not a boasting of ath­let­ic achieve­ment; Up­per Darby High’s trophies are found in the cho­rus room and rep­re­sent its out­stand­ing suc­cess in mu­sic.

Down the hall is the 1,650-seat Performing Arts Cen­ter, home to Summer Stage, a the­ater part­ner­ship with the town­ship whose foun­der, Har­ry Dietzler, won a pres­ti­gious Barry­more Award last fall. Among his proteges: Tina Fey, of 30 Rock and Sat­ur­day Night Live.

In many districts, mu­sic and art are regarded as large­ly the do­main of mid­dle- and up­per-class children, of­ten taught by pri­vate instructors. Not so in blue-col­lar Up­per Darby, which prides it­self on the scope of its offerings, its dedicated pub­lic school teachers, and an in­clu­sive ethos. Even in re­cent years, with more low-in­come students, more eth­nic di­ver­si­ty, and a shrinking lo­cal tax base, Up­per Darby has offered arts and the­ater pro­grams that sur­pass those in many more pros­per­ous districts.

Un­til now.

In a move akin to a dis­trict with cham­pi­on­ship ath­let­ic teams cutting sports, Up­per Darby administrators this spring announced a plan to elim­i­nate all el­e­men­ta­ry-school mu­sic and art classes. That and oth­er proposed cuts would save about $3 mil­lion, dis­trict officials say.

The dis­trict began its bud­get planning this year with a $13 mil­lion def­i­cit, Su­per­in­ten­dent Louis DeVlieger said in an in­ter­view, and "I don’t know who is going to come ri­ding over the hill to save us."

Administrators main­tain that the mid­dle- and high school arts pro­grams re­main un­touched, so the tra­di­tion of ex­cel­lence will con­tin­ue.

But many view the el­e­men­ta­ry-school teachers as an in­dis­pens­able link in the arts’ chain of suc­cess. For ex­am­ple, mu­sic instructors teach third graders the re­cord­er, help­ing them learn mu­si­cal no­ta­tion that becomes the foun­da­tion for later cho­ral and in­stru­men­tal par­tic­i­pa­tion.

In re­sponse to the proposed cuts, thousands of dis­trict residents turned out at school board meetings in re­cent weeks and started mo­bi­liz­ing to take their case to Harris­burg, seeking state funding to roll back the changes. Those efforts, which including launching a pro­test web­site, www.saveudarts.org, are expected to in­ten­si­fy in coming weeks.

Parents are dis­traught.

"There is in­cred­i­ble tal­ent that comes out of this dis­trict," said Carolyn Car­on, one of the pro­test leaders, and the moth­er of a sixth grad­er at Drex­el Hill Mid­dle School who plays the vi­o­lin and clar­i­net. "The arts re­al­ly so­lid­i­fy the dis­trict; it’s what makes us great. It’s also what keeps a lot of families in the schools here."

Others echo that view, including Summer Stage’s Dietzler.

"I think for many peo­ple, it’s their iden­ti­ty," he said in a re­cent in­ter­view. "This is our point of pride; this is what we’ve bragged about and boasted about — we’re the leaders here; we can’t let this die."

Then there’s Tina Fey, Up­per Darby High Class of ’88.

Summer Stage, Fey said in an in­ter­view, was "so fun that you didn’t re­al­ize you were learning team­work and com­mit­ment and prob­lem-solving and or­ga­ni­za­tion and pub­lic speaking at the same time."

It "was a home to us. We found life­long friendships. It was a place where you could suc­ceed and it kept us off the streets."

She added: "It makes me up­set that the only an­swer is to take arts away from these kids. … I got a pub­lic school ed­u­ca­tion and am very proud of it. The kids growing up now de­serve the same things I got. … That should be their right."

For cur­rent cho­rus mem­ber An­geli­ca Rivera, a se­nior, "The arts is my life." Cutting el­e­men­ta­ry mu­sic, she said, would be "like losing your voice." The Summer Stage pro­gram "is be­yond amazing," she said. "You are with peo­ple who love doing the same thing you do. … It’s in­de­scrib­able."

Bar­ba­ra Kurmlavage, also a se­nior, transferred from Cath­o­lic school be­cause of Up­per Darby High’s cho­ral pro­gram.

"It has to­tal­ly changed me," she said. "Every­one here is friends. We’re a fam­i­ly. The arts has been a home to me. I love it."

When parents talk about el­e­men­ta­ry-school teachers building the foun­da­tion of Up­per Darby High’s arts suc­cess, they mean peo­ple such as Mar­tin Hyde, the mu­sic teach­er at Garrettford El­e­men­ta­ry School in Drex­el Hill.

Hyde does much more than sim­ply in­still basics. His third graders also learn to play the bari­tone uku­le­le; if they learn two chords, Hyde said, "they can play hundreds of songs."

Hyde also writes songs on school themes that the children per­form.

The ef­fort pays off. Garrettford’s cho­ral, band, string, and or­ches­tra ensembles to­tal about 215 participants, with many children at the 575-stu­dent school join­ing sev­er­al groups.

"Singing is my whole life; it’s my fa­vor­ite thing to do," said fifth grad­er Sa­sha Tay­lor, one of Hyde’s students. "Music inspires us."

Art teachers make sim­i­lar contributions, said dis­trict art su­per­vi­sor El­len Flocco, doing every­thing from help­ing students de­sign scen­ery for school plays to finding hidden tal­ent in struggling students. The high school has a rich ar­ray of offerings for both dabblers and se­ri­ous artists. Awards and scholarships of­ten fol­low.

Se­nior Jude Marks, who won a na­tion­al Con­gres­sio­nal Art con­test "Best in Show" prize last year, echoed that view. In a vid­eo in­ter­view with a stu­dent re­port­er, he said that his love and mas­tery of art stemmed from his work with an el­e­men­ta­ry-school teach­er and that his high school courses pushed him to new levels of achieve­ment.

Up­per Darby’s el­e­men­ta­ry- and mid­dle-school mu­sic pro­gram generates high levels of par­tic­i­pa­tion at the high school. About 430 students are in the cho­ral pro­gram at the 3,700-stu­dent school; about 200 are in band and or­ches­tra.

Cho­ral di­rec­tor and dis­trict mu­sic su­per­vi­sor Bar­ba­ra Benglian, a former state teach­er of the year, is leg­end­ary both for her high expectations and for fostering a nurturing at­mo­sphere. She relishes learning about her students’ lives as much as their mu­si­cal abilities. "I al­ways tell the kids ‘I need to know your sto­ry,’ " she said in an in­ter­view. "We call our­selves a fam­i­ly … where they feel ac­cept­ed and cared-for."

Music is so wo­ven into Up­per Darby’s fab­ric that an an­nu­al 5K run and mu­sic mar­a­thon in mem­o­ry of el­e­men­ta­ry mu­sic teach­er Brad Schoener became a ma­jor event in re­cent years. Schoener won a na­tion­al award for his ded­i­ca­tion to his main­ly low-in­come students be­fore dying of can­cer in 2009, at age 46. The day­long event hosted more than 1,000 performers and thousands more spectators last week­end, raising $28,000 to pur­chase instruments and give lessons to needy students. "It shows peo­ple’s com­mit­ment to the arts," said his wid­ow, Jennifer Schoener, her­self a school band di­rec­tor in Lan­cas­ter County.

Schoener said her hus­band "knew Up­per Darby had some­thing spe­cial. … The teachers some­times don’t have the tools that oth­er districts have, but they nev­er let that stop them. And the parents are pas­sion­ate. They know what mu­sic does for their children and they want to keep it."

She added: "This is heart­break­ing. It’s so un­like the Up­per Darby I have come to know. I’m still hoping some­thing good will hap­pen, and the sense of com­mu­ni­ty that has al­ways been there can be restored. I hope it’s not too late."

Con­tact Dan Har­dy at 610-313-8134, dhardy@phillynews.com, or on Twit­ter @DanInq.

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