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Bristol Warren school committee pits arts against academics

By   /   January 30, 2013  /   19 Comments

mhhs bandIn order to get Mt. Hope High School’s program of study for the 2013-2014 academic year approved at Monday night’s school committee meeting, the group of officials first had to agree to disagree.

After much debate and discussion between school committee members and members of the Mt. Hope High School arts department, the question remains: which activities are performed as part of a curriculum, and which are considered to be extra-curricular activities?

The lengthy debate was raised by school committee members when the group was asked to review and approve the school’s programs of study for the 2013-2014 academic year. As stated in the Mt. Hope student handbook, “any student receiving one failing grade shall be placed on academic probation. Students on probation will be prohibited from participating in athletic competitions/games, and all or any extra-curricular contests, competitions, concerts, plays, special events, trips or appearances sponsored by an extra-curricular school club/organization, etc.”

After reviewing the program of studies, some school committee members questioned why members of performing arts programs — marching band, chorus, vocal ensembles and theater — would still be allowed to participate in performances when they were not achieving passing grades in another area of study.

School committee member Karen Lynch said her son was prohibited from participating in a DECA activity — a marketing program or club — due to poor grades. She wants to see the same rules apply to band members.

“It is not your right to perform, it is a privilege to perform,” she said, comparing band members to a football player who is sidelined due to grades.

Bob Arsenault, chairman of the Mt. Hope High School music department, said the rules do apply to music students.

“The football player is not getting any (academic) credit for it. They’re doing it because they like it,” Mr. Arsenault said. “The performance is a part of the curriculum. It’s an academic requirement that they participate.”

Committee member Marjorie McBride disagreed and reiterated her concern expressed at the Jan. 14 workshop. There, she brought up a concern with the language related to the music curriculum with the use of the words ‘will perform’ indicating mandatory extracurricular activities in order to pass a music course. That, she said, contradicts the current policy in the student handbook which states if a student is failing a class, they cannot participate in any extracurricular activities. In her opinion, students who enjoy art classes but are failing an academic class shouldn’t be allowed to “go to a performance or throw pots.”

“I think that’s a very gray area,” she said. “We’re a learning community. When we’re allowing children to participate in something outside, even when they’re failing, I don’t know how we can call ourselves a learning community. I have an issue with that.”

Lynne Wainwright, in her first-term on the school, also viewed artful performances as extracurricular, reading her position from a two-page written statement. In it, she expressed her concern that Chinese people who value education would scoff at Mt. Hope High School’s practice of allowing a student with an academic ‘F’ grade to participate in anything that is non-academic.

In siding with the arts teachers, William O’Dell took the perspective that barring a child from participation in a graded performance activity because they are doing poorly in an academic class “violates the principle of No Child Left Behind,” and sends the message that “you must be successful in everything you do” which he believes sets an unrealistic expectation.

“It takes away another avenue for a student to get a problem solved,” he said.

In his view, it doesn’t make sense to keep a student from doing an activity they are successful at, because they are not as successful in another activity.

After listening to the debate, school committee chairman Paul Silva tried to use a different analogy.

“I don’t think we would be telling a child he can’t take a math test because he’s failing an English class,” he said, supporting the view that performances are part of the curriculum.

In an attempt to redirect the committee to stay within the scope of their responsibilities, he added that the task set before the school committee is to “adopt a program of studies, not write it.” That position was shared by Superintendent Melinda Thies.

“What is disturbing to me is that we’re pitting one content area against the other,” Ms. Thies said of the comparisons drawn between academics and the arts. “I rely on my experts.”

To facilitate the decision to vote on the program of studies or move to withdraw it from the agenda as suggested by Mr. Silva, the school district’s solicitor, Benjamin Scungio, gave his legal opinion.

“It’s not within the purview of the school committee to develop the curriculum,” Mr. Scungio advised. “If you don’t like these types of classes, cut the classes, get rid of them.”

Hearing the views of those who don’t view performance as part of the curriculum assessment, Mr. Scungio gave them another option.

“Maybe you shouldn’t have any performance classes in the district,” he said.

“If that’s what I have to do, I will,” Ms. McBride said.

The language used in the music curriculum descriptions and being debated only now has gone unchanged for a dozen years, according to Mr. Arsenault. He didn’t know why it was being questioned now.

Mt. Hope’s principal, Donald Rebello, asked the school committee to adopt the program of study and leave it up to him and his staff of professional educators and curriculum developers to ensure that appropriate guidelines are followed. If the school committee wished to continue the conversation, Mr. Rebello asked that it be re-visited early on in the process next year, rather than wait until the programs were before them for approval.

The 2013-2014 programs of study were approved 7-1. Ms. McBride voted against. John Saviano was absent from the meeting.

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19 Comments

  1. Cheryl Burns says:

    I am very concerned as I read this. The Arts are part of the curriculum but process and product are two different things. I haven’t seen the syllabus- but if the performance is the end result (like a summary or test in other subjects) then it is not extracurricular. I need to be informed more but either way- removing Arts from the curriculum is NOT something I would support. I would like to change Ms. McBride’s mind on this matter.

  2. Bristol99 says:

    Why can’t the performing arts students who fail a class be allowed to practice (which is the learning part) put not participate in concerts, events, parades, trips, etc.? I’m sure they have back-ups in the event of sickness, injury, etc. just like they do in sports. This does seem like a double standard to me. Or maybe athletes should be graded and get credit for their sports (physical education) and they can also be exempted from the policy?

  3. DobbsMom says:

    I’m with you, Cheryl. Arts programs are integral to academic development. This issue needs thorough, informed, debate and discussion.

  4. Kyle Andree says:

    This is ridiculous. As a former active student of the performing arts department, this article frightens me.

    “Hearing the views of those who don’t view performance as part of the curriculum assessment, Mr. Scungio gave them another option.

    “Maybe you shouldn’t have any performance classes in the district,” he said.”

    Have no performance classes in the district? In essence, we all take classes at the high school level to acquire a new skill or learn about something in more detail, in hopes of taking this knowledge and applying/using/PERFORMING the new skill in the “real world.”

    If you truely want to get rid of performances, I nominate that you get rid of testing requirements. Do students not have to perform well in order to pass those standardized tests that get your schools accredited? If you don’t want a student to be focused on performing, it would only be fair to have these high standards tossed aside as easily as you would the funding for the music department.

    I realize i’m using the word “perform” in a broad sense. However, learning to perform a piece of music on an instrument, performing a poem in front of your English class, or doing well on a math exam ALL fall into the general category of PERFORMANCE.

    “Bob Arsenault, chairman of the Mt. Hope High School music department, said the rules do apply to music students.

    “The football player is not getting any (academic) credit for it. They’re doing it because they like it,” Mr. Arsenault said. “The performance is a part of the curriculum. It’s an academic requirement that they participate.” ”

    Take it from me. I was the kid this article is talking about. I was always involved in the music department because it had some terrific teachers who honestly cared about their students, and would never turn them away when they needed help with something. I slacked off in my more traditional academic studies until my senior year. Often times, i was the kid being threatened by the Dean at the time (my good friend and town councilman Tony Tex) that i would have to miss performances for a failing grade.

    Not that i particulary cared about the disciplinary action (as me and the Tony T were on a first name basis anyways,) but the idea of bringing down my ensembles (and yes, in turn my grades for those music CLASSES) was more than enough to motivate me to get my crap together. I made damn sure i corrected the grades, and made the performance.

    I never agree with Bob Arsenault on pretty much anything, but his above quote is about as true as it gets. Children take music classes to learn a new skill. The test is performing that new skill. Granted, the performance (or test) happens in an auditiorium at 7pm on a Wednesday in front of an audience of friends and family… But i’d like to see some of these traditionally geared academic people perform under those circumstances. Just once.

    The Mount Hope Music Dept. is THE reason i managed to get through highschool. It gave me confidence in myself and my abilities. It made me motivated enough to pass my classes so that i could perform and show the world some of the musical talents i developed.

    If the football kids can’t pass their classes to stay on the field, maybe they didn’t give that much of a damn about football to begin with.

    But the parents who engrained that sense of over-entitlement into their children’s heads should really stop pointing fingers at everyone else and look within themselves for the answer to their parenting deficiencies.

    Served.

  5. Bristol99 says:

    @Kyle – You are obviously very passionate about this issue. Substitute Music Department with Athletic Department and many athletes would agree with you when you said, “…THE reason i managed to get through highschool. It gave me confidence in myself and my abilities. It made me motivated enough to pass my classes so that i could perform…” And there are athletes that are also involved in performing arts, so it’s not an us v. them scenario. I personally think the 0 fail policy is too restrictive – I think a 1 fail policy provides ample motivation for students. The 0 failure policy probably stifles kids from taking challenging classes and face it – some kids fail classes even giving it their best effort and even if their parents don’t have “parenting deficiencies”. PS – Why is football always used as an example? :)

  6. Kyle Andree says:

    You’re right in saying this isn’t an Us vs. Them problem. In the end, you’re deciding how to spend tax money on programs that all of your children could benefit from. But the reason this article got printed was based on the general idea of football players versus band kids.

    I tend to agree that a 1 fail policy would be better. I failed chemistry TWICE. The second time i actually (mostly) tried. Chemistry is impossible for me for whatever reason… Zero tolerance is tough stuff. I’ve seen kids get screwed by the Zero tolerance rule. They fail one class, can’t do the activity in school they enjoy, they lose interest in academics all together, and eventually drop out.

    I understand that there are kids who use the athletic department as a way to get through their high school experience, as i did with my music. If those kids didn’t exist, neither would the department.

    But i’d be hardpressed to find a parent who attended schoolboard meetings trying to change policy because their kid couldn’t perform in the chorus concert.

    And even if that chorus parent went and raised valid points for spending cuts to one department over the other, as long as athletics is the “other” in this equation, that parent’s concerns wouldn’t warrant a newspaper article.

  7. Kyle Andree says:

    I keep saying spending cuts almost out of habit in the topic of “band vs. sports” so i apologize for that. this is just extracurricular versus curriculum.

    But my main point still stands. Performances related to your grade in your music class should never be taken from you as punishment.

  8. Cheryl Burns says:

    I know a lot of parents who will stand up and fight for a cause they feel is important. No matter if it is Art, Science, Physical Education, Technology- you never know what will inspire a child to become the person they are meant to be. As a parent, I feel it is my job to protect the things that have the potential to change their life. I believe the Arts create life changing experiences and teach us a lot by the process of creating and performing -which is why I support the current stance of the school department to include performance as a “product” after learning procedure from an academic syllabus. My question is – following the Basic Education Plan aren’t these classes ACADEMIC and NOT EXTRACURRICULAR?
    Is that decision of ‘academic versus extracurricular’ a School Department, town council or school committee function? I feel lines are being blurred and clarification would be appreciated. More questions- How will this be decided in the future? Who decides if the classes stay or go? I don’t mind being the parent who asks the questions but just so you know my fight will be to have the Arts viewed as an equal to science, technology, engineering and math.

  9. Cheryl, you’ve hit the nail right on the head. Despite performance testing which can take place outside of traditional hours, these arts classes are CLASSES, i.e. part of the educational curriculum. Despite my love for football and respect for the dedication that young athletes invest in their sports training, playing for the Huskies is NOT a class.

    A more appropriate example would be complaining if students failing to meet certain academic requirements were able to continue going to art class, but not gym class, (or english, chemistry, etc).That would be legitimate, as we would be talking about classes.

    I find it hard to believe that Marjorie McBride and others honestly cannot grasp this distinction between curriculum/class, and extra curricular activities. It’s basically part and parcel of the definition for crying out loud!!

    Unless football has been recategorized as a graded and credited class since I graduated from Mt. Hope in 1998, we’re not talking about a double standard; rather, we’re talking apples (curriculum/classes) and oranges (extracurricular sports, clubs, etc). I’m not saying I agree with a 0 fail policy for these things, but simply put, it doesn’t apply to classes either way. Arts classes and all activities related to their grading are by definition part of the curriculum/not extracurricular.

  10. not to put too fine a point on it, but…

    curricular
    Web definitions
    of or relating to an academic course of study.
    wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

    ex·tra·cur·ric·u·lar
    Adjective
    (of an activity at a school or college) Pursued in addition to the normal course of study.

    sounds like the meeting could’ve been a lot shorter if someone handed Mrs. McBride a dictionary.

  11. Band and other performance arts are vital to experiential learners. These experiential learners are the adults who later become the entrepreneurs, the chefs, the musicians, the artists, the actors, the farmers, the yacht builders. These are the VERY (and only?) people currently driving the Rhode Island economy.

    Where would our tourism be without our restaurants, musicians, art studios, small independent shops, and theatres? This should be especially apparent in Warren and Bristol, shouldn’t it? We are two towns recognized and praised for these very assets. Think of all the recent articles in larger publications that have been about Warren and Bristol. They are centered on our musicians, our restaurants, our artists.

    Indeed, the very trend is going towards MORE experiential opportunities: think Hope & Main, think 2nd Story Theatre’s recent expansion into the Liberty Street School building. These are businesses buying empty buildings and expanding programs in a down economy. And they are businesses built on performance arts.

    Throw away performance arts and you are indeed throwing away the very business sector that keeps Warren and Bristol afloat. These are the business sectors that will provide employment to future Mt. Hope High School graduates. Do we truly want to strip away the skill set that Mt. Hope graduates will need to get those jobs?

  12. I understand why everyone is getting very upset about this article – I would as well if I just read what was printed here. Please understand that the majority of the school board supports the Arts. Let me see if I can explain my viewpoint with an analogy. I have a child that is a picky eater – he loves chicken fingers but hates his vegetables. I have want him to have the chicken fingers because I know they bring him to the table and they provide nourishment. However, as a parent, I know he needs to eat his veggies because they will round out his well-being. However, he doesn’t even like trying his veggies. Not only do I need to ensure he at least TRIES his veggies, but that I don’t overload his plate with chicken fingers so that he has room in his belly for at least an attempt at the veggies. He needs to ensure all of these nutrients go in so that he can be a healthy child. If he eats his veggies, he might (whom am I kidding – will likely) get a treat in a dessert. But he needs to eat both the chicken and the veggies to get dessert.

    In my mind – these food analogies are different things for different kids – Some kids love music, some hate it. Some love gym, some hate it. Some love math, some hate. Whatever feeds their soul and gets them to school. So while this article focuses on the Arts, they were victimized in this debate. We need to put all our efforts into ensuring the kids at least TRY, at the same time not overwhelming their plate, so they can be well-rounded. For me, if a child is failing, it is like I didn’t even ask them to try the veggie. We have so many dedicated teachers and programs to ensure student success, that we have to focus on making a real effort to raise the bar. It is so difficult for a child who is truly trying to actually fail a class.

    And for lack of a better term, sometimes you do need that carrot to get a kid to try. How many of us have offered an extra chicken finger to a picky child so that he will eat that veggie? Even the responder above documented his own case of how that “carrot” ensured he worked hard at his other HS obligations.

    So please don’t assume the SC is against the Arts, far from it. We do rely on our experts to write curriculum but our role is to hold up a mirror every once in a while to ensure we maintain a high level of academic standards across curriculums. Our MHHS Art and Music department is arguably the best in the state, I wish to support them and provide those students all the performance opportunities available. But I also want our students to pass their other classes as well.

  13. Samantha Lee says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXMVwkWosD8

    ^my 15 minute video response recorded at 1 am. Enjoy.
    xo Sam

  14. Kyle Andree says:

    With all due respect Ms. Rancourt, the “carrot” as you’ve put it is not what this article is about.

    However, you referenced my carrot, so allow my clarify on exactly how my carrot system worked.

    I got graded in my music classes that i took every day. Part of those grades, or the tests, were the performances after school hours. I know, i know, it’s a little mindblowing that academics can be considered after 2:30pm monday through friday, but i swear thats how it worked.

    Now, my carrots, or extracurricular activites are a different subject. I volunteered to sign up for jazz choir after school. jazz band. i competed in battle of the bands. i participated in some of the wonderful musicals organized by Carol Schlink and Vicky Boyle. THOSE were the most positive experiences of my high school career, and the reason i continued to get passing grades.

    As i said, i wasn’t an exemplery student most of the time and had to pay the consequences of academic probabtion more than once. And it sucked, and it was inconvenient to myself and the people depending on me to do my part in an activity i volunteered for.

    Based on your comment Ms. Rancourt it sounds like you’re on the school committee, but i do not know for sure. I mean the committee no disrespect with these comments, but you are missing the point. The rules for academic probation isn’t the problem. The committee’s inability to differentiate academic versus extra-curricular is not only the main issue here, but it is a downright frightening issue.

    Honestly, how can people who are elected to a school committee not able to define the differences between these? It truly is about as clear cut as it gets.

    Academics you get graded on, because you need those credits to graduate (and keep your schools accredited.)
    Extracurricular activites are meant to enrich skills and likes for certain interests that you already may have had, or want to learn more about. And if academics suffer as a result of those interests, then the extra-curriculars get taken away as a punshiment. This system makes sense to me. I am living proof that it works (even if i do think it’s a bit strict.)

    But to question the overall validity of a class’s curriculum because it culminates with the test of putting on a great performance at the end of a semester is short-sighted, disheartening, and completely ignorant.

  15. klynch26 says:

    As a member of the school committee, I felt it was important to weigh in on this issue. It is easy to provide definitions of extracurricular to defend your position on this issue as well as state since it is a requirement these activities should be exempt from the academic eligibility rule. I agree that some of these activities are assessments and therefore should be outside of the scope of the eligibility requirements.
    My position is and will remain that not all activities are created equal and some of these activities should be classified as extracurricular and not requirements. Some of these activities take place during the day and actually take children out of the classes they are failing. That to me is unacceptable. I don’t care if it for the Arts, Athletics, Robotics, DECA, etc. No student should be leaving during the school day for any reason and missing classes if they are failing, especially if they are missing the classes they are failing.

    It is easy to claim that students choose to play a sport because they like it. I believe that after most students meet their Arts requirements of 1 class for graduation, they also are choosing to continue to take Arts classes because they like it. Those additional classes are not a requirement just like athletics are not a requirement.

    I do believe that Performing Arts Department has the best interests of their students at heart. They are caring, skilled teachers who have created an Arts Department that is one of the best in the state. That being said, their students need to pass their classes if they want to go forward in any post high school experience after they graduate. Yes, I believe in the importance of the Arts, but I also believe in the importance of Athletics and all other activities that connect children to their school.

    At the end of they day, we want all our students to not only be successful in one certain content area, but to achieve a foundation in all content areas so they can follow their dreams wherever they wish to go.

  16. Mrs. Lynch, you don’t see a distinction between an elective class that a student receives academic credit for (which may include evaluation related components taking place outside of regular class hours), versus an extra-curricular activity then? Or do you? Correct me if I’m wrong, but are you positing that an elective class for which a student receives academic credits necessary for graduation, although perhaps selected because they “like” it (such as extra art classes in your example above) is the same thing as an extracurricular activity?

    I feel like you’re dodging the heart of this issue by using vague abstractions while you paint calls to address these things by their basic definitions as subjective abstractions themselves, rather than the objective definitions that they truly are. I don’t think people are worried about their kids not being able to go on a drama club field trip because they’re failing algebra. The major concern here, as voiced by myself, Mr. Andree, and Mrs. Burns, and no doubt held by countless others, is that the school committee, as Mr. Andree puts it, possesses an “inability to differentiate academic versus extra-curricular.” Whether this is due to small town politics or legitimate cognitive inability, it is disturbing either way.

    It’s great you guys think Arts teachers are swell folks, and that Art and Athletics are both important, and you want kids to be well rounded. These are not exactly profound or revelatory insights though. Meanwhile, the answer to the question about whether the s.c. sees a difference between academic (specifically in this case, classes outside of reading, writing, and arithmetic) and extracurricular is just as present as it was before you weighed in above.

  17. klynch26 says:

    With all due respect, I absolulty see the difference between extracurricular activities and academic requirements. I have also stated that I agree many of these activities do fall under the purview of academic requirements, but I also feel some of them do not. Walking in the marching band at a football game while playing the tuba to me isn’t an academic requirement to prove a student is proficient at playing the tuba. Concerts on the other hand, I do feel qualify as academic requirements. Also, as I stated before, I feel there is a no acceptable excuse for a student to be participating in any activity, required or otherwise that takes place during the day that takes them out of the classes they are failing.

    Those activities during the school day should be classified as extracurricular.
    You mention the drama club field trip, but the drama classes, music classes and choral classes do go on field trips, concerts and competitions during the school day as well as after the school day, which are labeled as requirements. I supported this issue 6 years ago when we raised the academic requirements for all athletics and extracurricular activities and will continue to stand by my belief that not all activities are created equal and not all qualify as academic requirements for any student in the high school .

    To me, it all comes down to what you feel is an adequate amount of activities to prove your are proficient in any one subject especially if those activities are outside the students regularly scheduled class. If you research what RIDE (Rhode Island Department of Education) actually requires a student to achieve to prove proficiency for graduation, it is far less expansive than our teachers require.

    I am well aware there are very opposing views on this issue and in most issues that come before us, there are very strong opinions on both sides. But, please don’t assume because I don’t agree with some of the comments in this blog that it has anything to do with politics or as you say, “my cognitive ability”. I am a highly educated woman with a Masters Degree in Education and unlike some issues, politics plays no role in this issue since my two children who are also at Mt. Hope are expected to abide by the policies we adopt. I have been in contact with the Superintendent as well as the Principle at Mt. Hope all week and believe it or not, they agree with some the issues we brought up at the meeting on Monday night. There is middle of the road for this issue and I believe in the next few weeks you will see where that middle of the road leads our district.

    The bottom line is, everyone has their opinion, some based on years of education or personal experience and just because they might not share your opinion does not mean they are politically motivated or due to their cognitive inability. My contact information is on the district website, if you would like to discuss this issue further, I would be more than happy to engage in that conversation.

  18. Mrs. Lynch,
    Your most recent reply has the clarity and initial specifics that were missing in your first post. Everyone has an opinion, but some opinions can be wrong. Not all opinions are based in fact, or held with honest conviction. With this in mind, folks interested in this issue want to know where the people involved stand, and why. Not a reaffirmation that what the public at large consider to be important things are considered, well, important, lol.

    I have family and friends involved in the education field locally and elsewhere as teachers, students, and parents of students, and it is frustrating as heck to see how the often-times fickle trends in local and national politics, education, and administrators “doing something” for the sake of saying they did -independent of practical sensibilities- negatively effects a community, students in particular. Things were frustratingly vague in your first post, and in questioning why they were so vague, I assumed the worst.

    Thank you for clarifying your position in your reply. And I did not mean for my comments regarding “cognitive ability” and “small town politics” as directed at you personally, despite my issue with the vagueness of your earlier post. The cause for concern here is that the school committee (as a group) can’t see the difference between curriculum and extracurricular (or cannot collectively agree, as a group, that such a distinction exists), and the very notion that was the case makes one ponder (with exasperation) “how on earth could this be the case?!!? UNBELIEVABLE!!” Based on your follow up reply, where you personally stand sounds pretty straight forward to me, and possessing of the grasp of nuance necessary in dealing with the question.

  19. klynch26 says:

    I apologize if I wasn’t clear where I stood in my first response. Believe me, being a School committe member in a Regional School District is often very political, but for someone who has two children, it not about politics for me at all. I want the best education not only for your kids but for my kids as well. I want to see all our kids be successful and come back into our community to make it a better place. Our district had made such strides in the last ten years, but we still have a ways to go and though we may not always agree, this administration does a good job of listening to everyone’s views and making decisions that are in the best interest of all of our kids. We have many amazing teachers in our district, and I say that not only as a school committee member, but as a parent as well. Thank you for your response.

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