NPE Families Strike Notes of Discord over Music Staffing Plans

Wallingford-Swarthmore School Board
By Katie Crawford

Emotions ran high at the May 22 meeting of the Wallingford-Swarthmore School Board, in response to the proposal to replace retiring Nether Providence Elementary School music teacher Scott Kiehner with a configuration of current district music teachers working itinerantly. Parents and students expressed sadness and disappointment at the approach, which leaves NPE as the sole WSSD elementary school without a dedicated music instructor. NPE parent Damon Orsetti presented the board with a list of concerns focusing on the inequity among the three elementary schools. He stated that under the current proposal, while two of the elementary schools will have a portion of their musical instruction impacted by the need for their teachers to travel to NPE to teach, NPE itself will be left with “the scraps.” He believes that this type of decision making, “leads to the perception that NPE is last on the list of the three elementary schools.” Orsetti (who is also a candidate for School Board in Region Two) encouraged the board to reevaluate its decision in order to create a more equitable allocation of resources.

Nether Providence Elementary student Greg Gurow voiced concerns about changes to music faculty.

Nether Providence Elementary student Greg Gurow voiced concerns about changes to music faculty.

NPE 4th grader Greg Gurow spoke of his desire for a full time teacher explaining that it was difficult to have a relationship with a teacher that, “you don’t see a lot.” Gurow emphasized that he didn’t want a “changing picture,” of his music teacher. NPE parent Stephanie Walkup echoed his concerns, stressing the importance of familiarity and comfort for elementary school aged children. She asked the board, “How many children’s names do we want these teachers to learn?” While she acknowledged that there was no easy solution she asked the board to not seek more than two individuals to fill the position left open by Mr. Kiehner. Walkup encouraged community members to “light a spark, “ stating: “We must find our voices now.” In closing she highlighted for the board that, “equal, as defined by a percentage of work hours, does not equal fair.”

Shirly Early, also an NPE parent, presented the board with a list of questions including, Will NPE students see small lesson size increase? How will three different teachers communicate and coordinate? What will happen when [Strath Haven High and Middle School music teachers] Jack Hontz and Henry Pearlberg retire? She reminded the board that the families at NPE have the lowest per capita household income of the three elementary schools. She believes the private music lessons that many families pay for outside of school to supplement their children’s school music instruction is not as common at NPE as it may be at WES and SRS. As a result of this circumstance, she emphasized that a dedicated music teacher is even more crucial for NPE students.

Other Inequities Seen

Vickie Fedele also spoke of inequity in the district. As a parent of two African-American children she pointed to the lack of diversity among the district faculty. She asked the board if there is any plan in place to actively seek to hire more teachers of color. She referred to a 30 to 40 percent achievement gap between African-American and white students in the district, and noted that research shows that educational outcomes are better for all students when the faculty is more diverse. She encouraged the board to develop a plan to address this inequity.

In response to the range of speakers from the audience, board president Dr. Richard Sonntag thanked the audience members for their attendance and participation. He cautioned community members against relying too heavily on social media to get their information noting that by coming to the school board meeting they are showing their commitment “by coming to the source.”

He explained that the solution put forth was not “micromanaged by the board,” but rather was the result of the music faculty coming together to brainstorm solutions given the current economic climate in the district. The current proposal represents what the music staff believes is the best possible solution given the circumstances. Sonntag again explained the financial situation to the community members in attendance, noting that at the current rate of spending the district will deplete its emergency fund balance in approximately four years stating, “All we can do is manage what we have.”

Sonntag also shared his personal experience as a middle schooler who was surprised to learn that students who attended different elementary schools from his all shared the same instrumental teacher. He had never thought of his music teacher as an itinerant teacher. He believes the students at NPE will have a similar response. He also stressed that NPE is not being treated unfairly or differently from other district schools, but rather that this imminent retirement of a music teacher happens to be occurring at NPE. He stressed that the district is evaluating every situation and possibility after every teacher retirement. In addressing approximately eight retirements currently on the horizon for the district, the administration will consider the placement of long-term substitutes although full-time tenure track teachers are likely to fill most of these positions.

WSSD Superintendent Dr. Lisa Palmer noted that itinerant music teachers are not new to the district and in fact the current chair Jack Hontz recalls teaching across buildings. She also stressed that the music department when given the challenge, “How do we function with one less teacher?” created this solution and that the music teachers feel they will still be capable of delivering a stellar music program to all students. Palmer acknowledged that this solution is not what anyone wants, but that this is the current reality for the district. She also noted that while the reaction to this particular situation has been strong, the district has faced similar situations following retirements in other department for years without much public response.

Dr. Lisa Palmer recognized SHHS Emergency Team members Daniel Zimmerman and Grace Haase.

Dr. Lisa Palmer recognized SHHS Emergency Team members Daniel Zimmerman and Grace Haase.

Recognizing Responsive SHHS Citizens

Another focus topic of the board meeting was “Strath Haven High School Recognition.” Various students and faculty members were cited by the board and Principal Dr. Mary Jo Yannacone for their contributions to the school. Members of the student emergency team are trained to respond to emergencies at school and learn a range of emergency response skills including CPR. The team is led by SHHS teacher Daniel Zimmerman. Team member and SHHS senior Grace Haase was praised for her quick reactions when she performed the Heimlich maneuver on a fellow student who was choking during lunch. Haase arrived at the board meeting after attending the annual signing ceremony at the high school. She will be attending Amherst College in the fall, where she will run track.

In addition, the boys’ lacrosse team and their coach, Jef Hewlings, were recognized for their “Play for the A’s” fundraising efforts, which garnered more than $10,000 last year and twice as much this year for Alzheimer’s research. The Taylor Community Foundation recently recognized the team’s impact on the community, honoring them recently at a dinner and ceremony.

Finally, the Relay for Life Team was recognized for having surpassed the $1 million fundraising mark for lifetime fundraising. This year alone, more than $50,000 was raised during one 12-hour period, not including $4,000-plus from food sales, which will go towards providing three $1,000 scholarships for SHHS students in honor of former SHHS staff member Diane McCormick, who died after battling brain cancer. Co-advisers Jo- Ann Morris-Brady and Pat Keaveney, faculty leadership team Dina Dormer and Sue Gaur, and student co-chairs Matt McAndrews, Claire VanDuyne, and Julia Katcher were all recognized for their tremendous efforts.

Student representative to the board Val Henderson was recognized and praised by the superintendent and the board for her interesting and timely reports. She will be attending Johns Hopkins University in the fall.

The board approved the purchase of Discovery Education Techbooks for the middle school social studies and science programs. Denise Citarelli Jones, director of secondary education, highlighted the benefits of moving from traditional textbooks to Techbooks, noting their affordability, their “vibrant, constantly updated material,” and the relief of a literal burden for students who will no longer have to carry heavy text books. The Discovery Techbooks will be ready to launch in September at Strath Haven Middle School.

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