To write home about

Tonight, my home school district is voting to eliminate an elementary music position, as well as three teachers’ aides and the athletic secretary/substitute caller. The notice grabbed my attention through some Facebook posts, including that of the current elementary music teacher whose twin brother was my elementary music teacher.

To me, this notice felt very similar to something I observed a few years back when the board of education decided to eliminate its librarian and, ultimately, its library. The move wasn’t popular, but was made anyway. Personally, I believe that academic institutions have an obligation to its community to maintain a library of record for research and resource purposes, but I digress.

As a perennial civic activism nerd, I did what I felt could stand in for showing up to the board meeting (I get off work around 6:45 p.m. and live 130 miles north at present): I wrote a letter to the school board.

I’ll put the letter as a block quote below this post, but the gist of it was that music offers students a creative outlet. We ask so much of students in Pennsylvania: they take PSSAs (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment), Keystones (tests taken at the end of a course that’s subject-specific) and serve as ambassadors outside the classroom be it through vocational-technical school or in a uniform for any of Carlynton’s 19 sports. While there are mountains of data specifically regarding music education and hard line academic performance, my concern is simpler than that. When a school limits the outlets provided to a student outside of a traditional classroom, those students get restless.

We are living in perhaps the most intensely stimulated time ever, and I think outside learning is incredibly important.

I wrote the letter and sent it to every member of the school board. I received a response an hour later from the president of the school board, a longtime friend and father of a Carlynton Tech alum. I haven’t secured permission to publish his response, but I will say that it was cordial and frank.

He explained that the driving force in this discussion is the skyrocketing cost to run a school district. With less and less funding from the state and more and more expenditures such as health care, pensions and charter schools, districts have been assessing their options.

His response got me thinking about the cost of schooling. Education is nearly universally agreed to as an important thing to provide to everyone. However, it appears to be the ultimate trust-fall in governmental structure. The system relies upon a mixture of local and state funding to function. Teachers need to secure certain requirements to be allowed to teach, and it’s hard to break in. Once you break in and attain tenure, you’re nearly untouchable. The top-tier government authority at the state and federal level is a political appointee. Agencies create unfunded mandates that have real-world consequences. Plus, let’s not forget that small districts are adjacent to massive districts and the investment per-student isn’t a standardized amount. In other words, the resources are nowhere near consistent but the standards are.

What I’m saying is that today’s vote symbolizes a larger-scale systemic problem: schools are struggling to afford to function. That alone is troubling enough to write home about.

The following is a letter dated 16 April 2019, signed and submitted to the Carlynton School Board

To the Carlynton School District Board of Education:

I am a 2015 graduate of Carlynton Junior-Senior High school and hold a B.A. in Broadcast Production and Media Management from Point Park University. I am writing in response to the board’s consideration of the elimination of a music position.

What is the point of a local public school? According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (whose secretary, I should add, recently visited Carlynton Junior-Senior High School to tout the district’s success), the goal is “to ensure every learner has access to a world-class education system that academically prepares children and adults to succeed as productive citizens. Further, the Department seeks to establish a culture that is committed to improving opportunities throughout the commonwealth by ensuring that technical support, resources, and optimal learning environments are available for all students, whether children or adults.”

As a layperson not well-read in educational and political positioning, I would distill that into the simple idea that a school should provide an environment conducive to a varied, well-rounded education within a safe environment. If that sounds familiar, it’s similar to Carlynton’s own mission statement.

Well rounded mean providing instruction across a variety of subjects: math, reading, history, science, technology and creative expression. Pushing the “STEAM” model as your elementary and high schools have done consciously includes “arts” within that combined formula for success. In other words, students should be provided some method by which to allow them to be creative.

I write because I sincerely believe that eliminating a music position is a step in a dangerous direction. As teachers can attest, restless students are not conducive to a learning environment. Students today are being brought up in the most intensely-stimulated generation ever. We ask a lot of students from a brute numbers perspective: from endless standardized testing to serving as ambassadors for Carlynton in the media and business communities.

I think it’s reasonable to provide in return the ability to act out creatively. Music, Art and Physical Education fall into similar categories inasmuch as they offer students an outlet to channel their energies and focus into.  

I will acknowledge some bias: I was in chorus from 4th-12th grades, I was in the band in 4th grade and I participated in the spring musicals my freshman and sophomore years. I also served as the voice of the Carlynton Golden Cougar marching band. However, I believe that having a general music education afforded me a creative release that kept me sane through my high school and undergraduate studies and gave me a broader worldview.

Respectfully Submitted,
Alexander Popichak
News Producer, Erie News Now // Carlynton class of 2015

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