As Phila. schools make arts cuts, two luminaries retire

Music teacher Virginia Lam (left), who has overseen an all-city festival at the Kimmel Center, and arts competition organizer Tessie Varthas retired on Friday.
Music teacher Virginia Lam (left), who has overseen an all-city festival at the Kimmel Center, and arts competition organizer Tessie Varthas retired on Friday. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 30, 2013

As the Philadelphia School District braces for massive cuts to art and music education, two women who were considered the heart and soul of those programs made a bittersweet exit Friday.

Virginia Lam, the district's music specialist, who has overseen the annual all-city music festival at the Kimmel Center, is retiring. So is one of her best friends, Tessie Varthas, the art specialist who coordinated the citywide competition and exhibition of student artists.

"When people talk about the arts in the district, they talk about Tessie and they talk about Virginia," district spokesman Fernando Gallard said. "They have worked together to support the arts" and to support teachers who improve arts education.

Friday was also the final day for other retiring employees and for 3,859 staffers who are being laid off.

"A lot of friends and colleagues are unfortunately marking their last day in the School District," Gallard said, calling it "a pretty somber day."

Lam and Varthas said they were drawn to teach in Philadelphia by the city's vibrant cultural community and the district's renown as a mecca for arts education.

"Philadelphia was a model for music education in the '60s and the '70s," said Lam, 64, a native of Augusta, Ga. She began her district career teaching music at the former Edgar Allan Poe Elementary School in South Philadelphia in 1976.

"The arts are so necessary for children, especially inner-city children who don't have the opportunities of other children," said Varthas, 61, a native New Yorker who was hired in 1974 to teach art at Hackett Elementary School in Kensington.

"Our schools have been able to provide that through substantial arts instruction," Varthas said.

After long careers in the classroom, the women began working side by side as arts administrators 11 years ago.

In addition to overseeing instruction in their fields, Lam and Varthas were in charge of district-wide arts events and fostering partnerships with cultural institutions, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

They reached out to the corporate and philanthropic communities to garner grants and donations to support arts opportunities and scholarships for students. Varthas collected $9,000 to provide awards this month to some of the 1,500 students whose works were chosen for the district's 57th annual student art exhibition.

She and Lam said they had seen arts and music programs whittled away during previous belt-tightening, but they had never observed anything like the cutbacks in the current financial crisis.

Facing a $304 million shortfall July 1, the district has laid off several art teachers and all 76 itinerant music teachers who work with orchestras and ensembles at several schools. Their loss will end several music groups, including the All-City High School Orchestra.

"We were all very sad, and our students were very sad," Lam said.

She was a behind-the-scenes force in helping mobilize an impromptu final concert by music teachers and students at district headquarters Monday.

"We're not going to leave with a whimper," Lam said. "We're going to leave with the biggest bang we could make."

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., who spoke at the concert, has said he hopes to restore most of the laid-off employees if the district obtains the additional money it needs.

Lam and Varthas said the cutbacks were a factor in their decision to retire. But even though they are leaving their jobs, the women said they would press the district to restore its arts programs.

"Because of our long experience in our positions, it's part of our DNA to continue to advocate for the arts," Varthas said.

This month, she worked with a small team of volunteer art teachers to mount the student art exhibition at district headquarters. "I look around me, and I'm in awe of the talent of our students," she said. "The color, the energy. . . . This tradition has to continue."


Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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